Free elections, 1979
My last audience with the Shah
August 18, 2000
In April 1978, I was summoned to Tehran.The Shah wanted to give me special
instructions about the forthcoming special session of the U.N. General
Assembly on disarmament, initiated by the Soviet Union.This was about a
month after the riots provoked by Ayatollah Khomeini's followers in Tabriz.
My audience with the monarch was fixed for Wednesday April 12th at 11 o'clock
a.m. I was ushered in a parlor room where the commanders of the different
branches of the army were waiting to be received. The Shah would see them
one by one! He was running late in his schedule because of an urgent meeting
with the minister of interior. I had a lunch appointment with my brother.
I called his office to inform him that I would be late and he should not
wait for me.
It was almost half past twelve when I entered the Shah's office. He
did not seem worried at all . He listened to my report and gave some instructions
about the way we should vote at the U.N. meeting. This whole business did
not take more than fifteen minutes. He rose from his chair. I too got up
thinking that the audience was over. But he did not extend his hand. As
was his wont, he put his thumbs in the armholes of his vest and paced the
vast room. He spoke about the "events" (the unrest provoked by
religious elements). I remained standing , following his movements with
Suddenly he stopped in front of me and said: "These demonstrations
by some religious elements are orchestrated by the oil companies."
He remained silent for a few seconds staring at me as if he were verifying
the impact of his words. Then he resumed walking, and talking. "They
are angry at my policies. I have truly and practically nationalized the
oil industry. Mossadegh did nothing of the sort. His nationalization of
the British company was just words on paper. We were almost ruined and
had to accept the 'consortium' agreement with several Western oil corporations
including the British! I have just dismissed them all and taken into my
own hands all the oil business, from extraction to the selling of our refined
products in gas stations all over the world! The National Iranian Oil Company
is now one of the great oil corporations of the world. The eighth sister!"
He again stopped abreast of me and stared directly into my eyes. I did
not utter a word. He resumed his pacing in silence. When he turned his
back to me, I glanced at my wristwatch: it almost was one. He stopped for
the third time in front of me: "Mossadegh was the agent of foreign
interests as Khomeini is. We have documents proving this beyond the shadow
of a doubt. Besides, this molla is not a real Iranian. He is Indian rather
and his mother was not reputable."
The shah's tone evinced anger as he alluded to the ill-advised article
on Khomeini which had been published in one of Tehran's dailies on his
own orders . He again gazed at me, this time as if he were waiting for
a comment on my part . I said: "Your Majesty, if such documents do
exist, why doesn't the government publishes them?" He restarted his
slow pacing . "Yes,we are pondering the matter." I added: "Such
a publication would settle the matter once and for all if genuine proofs
By the sound of his voice I understood that he disliked my doubting
the validity of the documents. "At any rate," he continued, "this
is secondary. I am devising plans which will crown my White Revolution.
Now that economic welfare has been achieved and our defense and recuperation
of our oil resources give us an edge on our neighbors, we are not a developing
country anymore. We are among the advanced ones. Soon,we will be in the
vicinity of the so-called 7-Gs. I think therefore the time has come to
transform our regime into a genuine constitutional monarchy. Juan Carlos
did it in Spain, a country less rich than ours!"
He expanded on the subject and emitted doubts about the ability of the
Crown Prince Reza to fill his shoes: "He is too young anyway and I
don't think that anybody can accomplish what I did and withstand all the
pressures and sabotage I found on my path. I have sacrificed my health
for the country!"
He kept silent for a short moment, then invited me to sit while he returned
to his desk. A servant came in with a tray on which were a medicine flagon
and a glass of water. The Shah bolted a pill. Then he leant against the
back of his seat and spoke in a very soft voice, as if he were gathering
wool: "The time is coming for me to withdraw. I have served the nation
to the best of my ability and I think that I have done a lot of positive
things. All foreign leaders admire our achievements. The country is ready
for democracy. I have the intention of giving to Iranians the freedom of
expression and all other liberties. Political parties would be allowed.
I am only wondering if we should extend this freedom to the Tudeh (communist)
Party. They cooperated in 1946 with the Soviets for the secession of Azerbaijan.
I really don't know yet. After all Juan Carlos receives the Spanish communists
and even jokes with them! Maybe. At the end of the term of the present
parliament free elections would be organized with the participation of
candidates from all parties. In the summer of 1979. And I would empower
as prime minister the head of the winning party or coalition according
to the Constitution. Our people are not less educated and able than the
I was flabbergasted. I certainly was not expecting such confidences
on the part of the Shah . After a minute or two of silence, his lips gave
a faint smile: "I know it is lunch time.You must be starving. But
I wanted you to listen to me because I want to entrust you with a secret
mission. I want you to do something for me. You already have accomplished
a delicate mission and kept its secrecy (he was alluding to a 1967 encounter
with North Vietnamese on behalf of President Johnson). I want you to do
the same with what I instruct you now: Upon your return to New York, explore
very discreetly the possibility of having an international team of acceptable
observers to watch our elections and make sure that they are really and
completely free. This should not be construed as weakness on our part.
What I aim at, is to nick adverse leftist propaganda in the bud. So be
very careful about the people you contact."
I couldn't believe my ears. Only a year earlier, he was speaking of
continuing in the same direction. I remembered very well his words when
I was reporting to him on the U.N. matters in 1977: "I shall remain
at the top of the country. People need me and I have to complete the White
Revolution... A lot must still be done, among other things, in the realm
of education. Iranians are not yet ready for democracy." I thought
to myself that, as usual, contradictions did not bother him!
On the way to my brother's residence, I was wondering what had prompted
a 180-degree change in the Shah's mind. He did not seem too much concerned
about the growing religious unrest. At one point, referring to the Basque
terrorist activities in Spain, he said : "There is a price to pay
in order to change the system and introduce democracy." Then why did
he envisage a sudden and rapid change of his own regime? Probably because
of his health problems . But at that time nobody (except himself) knew
about his terminal illness.
I arrived at my brother's as he was saying good-bye to his guests. I
had a bite in the kitchen and joined him for a cup of tea in his office.
I told him about my bewilderment. He confirmed the Shah's decision "He
had this on his agenda, long before the start of the unrest." "But
then why the hurry?" I asked. My brother skipped the question. I said
: "He should stop attacking Mossadegh and the mollas. That's counterproductive.
Mossadegh is considered a national hero by the masses. It seems as if the
Shah were jealous of the old man. On the substance of democratization,
nobody would believe him!" My brother said : "Yet, he is sincere.
I have suggested to privately contact some of the dissidents. He has agreed.
Juan Carlos' performance has impressed him." I retorted : " I
understand. But one cannot Franco and Juan Carlos be at the same time.
The Spanish dictator had similar ideas toward the end of his life. That's
why he presented Juan Carlos as his heir. But he let the latter accomplish
the change. He knew people would not believe his words! I am afraid the
Shah is going to blunder." A servant was coming in and my brother
changed the subject.
On the plane back to New York, the Shah's revelations continued to churn
in my head. I thought that part of his plans must have leaked and reached
some mollas, especially the more fundamentalist elements. For the latter,
real free elections and democracy was a direct threat to their influence
on the masses. They would find themselves as a tiny minority in the parliament
. On the other hand bazaar merchants dreaded modernization which was eroding
their centuries-old financial practices. I hesitated to inquire about the
possibility of inviting international observers to check free elections.
After the special session of the General Assembly on disarmament, I took
a week off and went to Colorado. On June 20th, the Shah called me personally
and asked if I had found a responsible organization to oversee elections.
He also asked about the translation of his book ("Toward the Great
Civilization", which he had asked me to translate into French and
which I had completed with the help of one of my staff members) .This was
the second or third time in my fifteen years of service at the foreign
ministry that the monarch was directly and personally calling me over the
telephone! Decidedly something had changed. But obviously, it was too late.