Iran remembers the shah in new propaganda war
Washington - Most Iranians were born after the Islamic revolution of 1979 and have no personal memory of the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1925 to 1979. The Islamic Republic, however, perhaps in an attempt to legitimise itself, is still engaged in a permanent propaganda war against the legacy of the Pahlavis — and seems to be winning.
Mohammad Reza Varzi’s historical drama Moamaye Shah (The Enigma of the Shah), recently screened on the state television network, is the clerical regime’s latest contribution to the campaign to denigrate the Pahlavis and portray them as avaricious rulers who plundered Iran’s wealth.
But remarkably, Iran Broadcasting is simultaneously allowing public figures to criticise this depiction and even cautiously defend the record of the former monarchs.
So what accounts for these contrasting depictions of the Pahlavis in the regime’s public discourse? And how come the Islamic Republic is tolerating revisionist interpretations of the shah and his heavy-handed rule?
The Enigma of the Shah relies heavily on the Rise and Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty, supposedly written by General Hossein Fardoust, a childhood friend of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the head of his Special Bureau.
Fardoust betrayed the shah during the revolution and remained in Iran to establish the new regime’s security service, the SAVAMA, which took over from the shah’s infamous SAVAK.
In the book and the TV series, Reza Shah, founder of the modern Pahlavi dynasty, is depicted as an opium addict who owed his throne to the support of the Baha’is, a sect banned by the regime, and the British who ran Iran after World War II and controlled its oil.
According to the depiction, the shah’s only counsel to his heir Mohammad Reza was: “Betray this country as much as you can!” Mohammad Reza Shah, who died in exile in Egypt in July 1980, is shown as an inadequate husband, a homosexual and a political coward.
There’s no surprise in this portrayal, which follows the regime’s official propaganda line. More surprising is Iranian television’s airing of revisionist depictions of the Pahlavis that contradict the regime’s version.
An important example of this was a lively defence of the Pahlavis by Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor at Tehran University who, in a live TV appearance as far back as March 7, 2010, lauded Reza Shah’s “service to Iran”.
“In this black-and-white world of ours, we suppose Reza Shah was a traitor,” Zibakalam said. “We suppose Reza Shah was the lackey of the British… But when looking at his deeds… he did nothing but serve this country when dealing with foreigners. Iran owes its territorial integrity to… Reza Shah!”
Commenting on The Enigma of the Shah in an interview with the newspaper Iran on December 21st, Zibakalam said: “The Voice and Vision (of the Islamic Republic) desires to present a particular view to the people. Therefore, such a work becomes a partisan and politicised programme. It does not recount history as it was… but presents a particular interpretation of it.”
Another example is a certain Hojjat al- Elam Shahab Moradi. In a recent interview on state television, the mid-ranking cleric said he barred his children from watching The Enigma of the Shah.
Commenting on a dramatic reconstruction of an alleged incident in which one of the shah’s brothers abducted a chaste woman in the street in broad daylight to defile her inside the palace, Moradi said: “Do you really think the people believe this?
“Do you think the people will say they (the Pahlavis) were bad people? Or the scene where the American ambassador asks: ‘What is there to plunder this week?’ Or when Reza Shah advises (his son) ‘Betray this country as much as you can!’ People don’t believe such dialogue! It’s a waste of public funds to make this kind of movie.”
Taking his criticism to another level, Moradi said: “We live among the people and they’re not saying that the Pahlavis were bad!”
These contrasting depictions of the Pahlavis, whose overthrow in an Islamic revolution that played a vital role in the rise of militant Islam, result from the regime’s awareness that the revolution is in a new phase.
This was exemplified by the July 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States and other global powers and the opening of a rapprochement with the West after more than 35 years of hostility.
On the one hand, the traditional depiction of the Pahlavis as puppets of the West, as represented by The Enigma of the Shah, appeals to the regime’s hard-core supporters.
But to Iranian nationalists critical of the Islamic Republic, the regime, no longer fearful of a monarchist counter-revolution, delivers the revisionist view of Zibakalam, Moradi and others that portray the shah as a somehow misguided patriot used and betrayed by the West.
In both instances, the message is: The West is bad!