The Kennedy White House, 1962

Obsessed & possessed

From Ehsan Naraghi's memoirs "From Palace to Prison; Inside the Iranian Revolution" (Ivan R. Dee publishers, Chicago, 1991). Pages 141-145.

Visa for Egypt; eighth and last conversation with the Shah

Sunday, January 14, 1979, 10:30 a.m. My audience with the Shah had been arranged for 10:30 a.m. When I arrived at the palace I ran into a number of generals on their way out. Clearly disturbed by the news that the Shah was planning to take a trip abroad, a couple of them said to me, "When you see His Majesty you must persuade him not to leave."

As for myself, I simply felt that it was too late: whatever his decision, it could no longer make any difference to the destiny of a man who, because of his temperament and his health (about which we were yet to learn the worst), was no longer in a position to face the violent storm shaking our country.

I took a seat in the chamberlain's office, and as I heard the telephone conversations conducted around me, I realized how much pressure the Shah's entourage were putting on him to leave on one of the cargo planes taking his family's belongings to the United States. I understood also that a select few of the entourage had obtained His Majesty's permission to leave the country. Even so, the Shah himself was still doing his best not to give the impression that this was in fact the "great departure"; indeed, until the very eve of his flight, the date and destination were kept secret.

At exactly 10:30 the chamberlain announced me and I entered the Shah's office with a respectful bow. He welcomed me with a big smile, invited me to take a seat, and asked me the usual question, "What's new?"

"The most important news is the announcement that Your Majesty is leaving."

Hiding his emotions, he said in a neutral tone, "Yes, I'm thinking of leaving for a while to give Bakhtiar's government a free hand and to allow him to resolve the crisis."

"Has Your Majesty chosen his destination?"

"I've decided to go to the United States."

"Your Majesty, your decision to go abroad on holiday was first announced in Washington two days ago by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who described it as 'wise.' Nationalist circles would have preferred the announcement to have been made in Tehran. Besides, Majesty, aren't you afraid that with the anti-American sentiments currently raging in the country, your choice of the United States will further inflame the hostility being directed at you?"

The Shah preferred not to reply to my first observation, and judging by the way he crossed his legs, I understood that he had been hoping it would be the Americans who would announce the trip so that they would feel responsible for all that might follow.

As to my second remark, he replied, "Our visit is a private one, and we'll be staying with friends (1). In any case, we've chosen the United States because our safety could not be guaranteed anywhere else."

"But, Majesty, any country which accepts you will have to guarantee your safety."

"Which country are you referring to?"

"A Muslim country in the Middle East."

"In that case the revolutionary Muslim would not be silent, and we would create problems for our hosts. In America it is a different matter; the security system is structured in a way that will ensure our personal safety. At any rate, we have also received an invitation from a friendly Middle Eastern country (2). We will decide what to do for the best."

When William Sullivan, the American Ambassador in Tehran, informed the Shah that President Sadat had invited him to stop over in Egypt for a few days, the Shah was reluctant to accept, so great was his hurry to reach the United States. (Once in Egypt, the Shah must have noticed that the Americans were increasingly reluctant to renew their own invitation.)

Aslan Afshar, imperial chief of protocol, who stayed with the Shah during his last months in Tehran and later accompanied him to Egypt and Morocco, confided to me that the Shah had said on several occasions that he hoped to go to the United States so that he could "explain to the National Security Council and the Foreign Affairs Committee of Congress the dangers which threatened Iran and the region, because neither the American embassy in Tehran nor the Iranian embassy in Washington had been capable of conveying the reality of Iran to the Americans."

The Shah imagined that the Americans perceived this reality as something apart from him. He did not realize at the time that for more than twenty years he himself had been the main component of American foreign policy in the region.

Marvin Zonis, an American political scientist who knows Iran very well, has recently published a book on the Shah and his relations with the U.S., in which he demonstrates that America was unable to see Iran other than through Mohammad Reza Shah (3). Zonis argues that the deep involvement of the United States in Iranian life manifested itself during practically every phase of the Shah's reign and of the revolution which so categorically rejected that regime. The Americans were responsible for what had happened in Iran because they were so intimately linked with the Pahlavis. Had they acted differently at various points in the Shah's reign, his fate would have also been different. The United States contributed, perhaps decisively, to the transformation of the Shah into a despot. It encouraged his dreams of grandeur by contriving his regime's economic and military strength, and it encouraged him psychologically by allowing him to use America and its presidents as if they were his personal property.

Now the Shah was desperate to get to the United States in any way possible, whether for security's sake, or for the sake of "explaining things to Americans," or possibly on health grounds (as became the case a few months later in the course of his exile in the Bahamas and Mexico), or even, as the revolutionaries in Tehran maintained, in order to gain access to money he had sent to America. His idealization of America and his profound attachment to that great power never diminished even during his exile. More than any other factor, it explains the personal and political tragedy that engulfed the American embassy in Tehran when he was admitted to the United States in 1979. After the revolution both the American administration in Washington and the Bazargan government in Tehran foresaw such an explosion and did everything possible to prevent it. It was the Shah's tenacity that made nonsense of their efforts.

During my conversation with him on January 14, 1979, I saw before me a man totally obsessed with -- even possessed by -- the United States. Although deep down inside he blamed America for his fall, when he abandoned his throne he still longed to go there.

To ease the tension, I said: "For sixty years now, whenever Iran has been faced with an uncertain future my father has consulted the poetry of Hafez (4). He has done so again now, thinking of the current crisis and your Majesty's destiny."

The Shah was very intrigued and asked, "So what did Hafez say?"

I answered with an attempt at humor: "Given your lack of interest in poetry, Majesty, I think it might be better if I give the poem directly to the Shahbanou (5), but I can give you an idea of what it said: In the face of adversity it is wise to keep one's distance, because once the turmoil and agitation of this world would have died down, it is the good we have done which will finally remain with us." (6)

Looking pleased and relieved, the Shah nodded twice, saying, "That is good! It is comforting..."

"Your Majesty, I will withdraw now. It only remains for me to wish you a safe journey."

"Very well! See you soon... that is, I hope we will meet again."

"I hope so too."

I stood up to take my leave. Contrary to custom, the Shah accompanied me to the office door. When he took my hand I had the distinct impression that he held it longer than usual. He peered into my eyes in a way he had never done before, and his eyes were bright with emotion. I felt as if I could read in them a sense of recognition as well as regret and remorse. It was as if he wanted to say, "Why did you not come to me earlier, when I needed so badly to be told the truth?"

To which my answer, like that of many others, could only have been, "Because, Majesty, for a long time you preferred to listen to people who chose to hide the truth from you."

I was never again to see Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. Two days later he left with Farah on an "official visit" to Aswan, Upper Egypt. He returned to the Nile valley in 1980, after incredible tribulations on both sides of the Atlantic, to die and be buried. #

Related links

* THE IRANIAN History section
* THE IRANIAN Opinion section

Ehsan Naraghi founded Tehran University's respected Institute of Social Studies and Research in the late 1950s, later moved to UNESCO, and returned to Iran in 1975 to become director of the Institute of Research and Planning in Science and Higher Education. He now lives in Paris where he works as an advisor to UNESCO.

(1) A reference to Walter Annenberg, a former U.S. ambassador to London, who had invited the Shah to stay at his house near Palm Springs.

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(2) From the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat.

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(3) Marvin Zonis, "Majestic Failure: The Fall of the Shah" (Chicago, 1991)

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(4) It is an Iranian tradition to turn to the poetry of Hafez in order to throw some light on the future. A volume of the poet's complete work is opened at random, and the future is read from the poem selected.

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(5) The Shah's wife, Farah Diba.

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(6) The verse from Hafez which I read to the queen over the telephone that same evening was, "In golden letters 'tis written in a crystalline sky: Good deeds will live, all else will die." Clearly moved, the queen bade me farewell and thanked me for the frankness with which I had spoken to her of the country's affairs.

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