Iran remembers the shah in new propaganda war

February 19, 2016
The Enigma of the Shah poster

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!