x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Iranian exiles whisper of return to monarchy

The 29th anniversary of the shah's death has special significance - it follows the worst political violence in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

Farah Diba, left, widow of the late shah of Iran, and Jihan Sadat, widow of Egypt's assassinated president Anwar Sadat, attend a ceremony at the shah's tomb in Cairo's Al Rifa'i Mosque.
Farah Diba, left, widow of the late shah of Iran, and Jihan Sadat, widow of Egypt's assassinated president Anwar Sadat, attend a ceremony at the shah's tomb in Cairo's Al Rifa'i Mosque.

CAIRO // Either due to force or frustration, the placards and protesters have all but disappeared from the streets of Tehran, where disputed presidential elections in mid-June brought thousands of supporters for reformist candidates, such as Mir-Hossein Mousavi, onto the streets. But in Egypt's capital, a restrained spirit of resistance remains among a small group of Iranian exiles. As Iranians in Iran shout their support for democracy and Mr Mousavi, the few members of the global Iranian diaspora who gathered here on Monday whispered of a return to a monarchy and wept for a different man: Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran's deposed shah, who died and was buried here 29 years ago this week. "He is my great father, that is how I would address him. I have come here to visit my father," said Mo Saisley, 59, who owns a property firm in Kingston-upon-Thames in England. Mr Saisley said he has been coming to Cairo for 22 years to honour the late monarch, but that unlike in past years, this anniversary holds special significance: it is the first to follows the worst political violence in Iran since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the monarch. "We said it then: don't listen to the mullahs. And we're saying it again," Mr Saisley said. Every July 27, this small group of Iranians travels from Europe and the US to watch Jehan Sedat, the wife of Egypt's assassinated former president, and Farah Pahlavi, the deceased shah's wife, pay tribute to their husbands' controversial - and inextricably linked - political legacies. The perceptions of excess, corruption and autocracy that surrounded Iran's former emperor in the months following the revolution made him an international pariah. Even Jimmy Carter, then the US president, which had been the shah's chief patron during his 37-year rule, asked Pahlavi to leave America in 1979, where the shah had been receiving medical treatment. It was an ignominious end for the Iranian ruler, who had considered himself the scion of 2,500 years of great Persian emperors beginning with Cyrus the Great. After nearly a year of transient exile, it was Anwar Sadat, the former president of Egypt, who finally welcomed the deposed shah months before Pahlavi's death from cancer in 1980 at the age of 60 and about one year before Sadat himself was killed by an assassin's bullet in 1981. While it was unlikely that Sadat's decision to host the shah led to his assassination, it could not have helped, said Gamal Abdel Gawad, a security analyst for the semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies. "It was a mistake because even countries like the United States didn't receive him. It was costly, the decision. There was a price Egypt paid for that," said Mr Gawad. "Definitely, it's a decision that affected Iranian-Egyptian relations later and delayed and is still delaying any improvement in relations between Egypt and Iran." To this day, Egypt remains the only Arab country that has not renewed its diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic. As Iran's power throughout the Middle East has increased following the US-led invasion of Iraq, lingering suspicions between Egypt and Iran have grown substantially worse. In the past year, the Egyptian government has repeatedly accused Iran of meddling with Arab affairs, particularly through its regional proxies such as Hizbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia. As a tribute to the late Egyptian president, Monday's ceremony began with a laying of wreaths at Sadat's tomb. For those who still venerate the shah, Sadat remains a towering figure who, like the late Iranian ruler, was forced to consolidate his power to fight the twin threats of Islamism and communism. When asked about the shah's poor record on human rights, many of the exiles said that while Pahlavi's autocratic, often brutal, methods were hardly an example of democracy in action, the Islamic Republic has diminished personal freedoms to a far greater extent. "We have a young generation, and after 30 years, they don't remember anything from the shah's time," said Altreza Azizi, a 55-year-old who owns a small business in Iran. Mr Azizi said he has made an annual pilgrimage to Cairo for the past three years. "I think that we had more democracy compared to this time. We have no democracy now, not even personal democracy. You cannot choose even the colour of your shirt." To the chagrin of Mr Azizi, even these trying times have not rekindled an interest in the shah. Today, most Iranian youths remain ignorant of what Mr Azizi said were Pahlavi's true accomplishments: economic growth, improved education, land redistribution and secular governance. "I say always that we had shortcomings but we didn't really need such a horrible revolution," said Farah Pahlavi, the late shah's wife and the former empress of Iran, in an interview with The National. "Reforms could have been done. And I think for many, that's clear today when they compare the situation in Iran to 30 years ago in Iran, even in freedom to wear what they want, to listen to what they want, to travel where they want." At a dinner reception after the memorial at one of the Egyptian government's official guest residences in Heliopolis, a Cairo suburb, mourners milled about in neckties bearing the official sun and lion crest of the Persian Empire. Guests passed around mock Iranian currency from before the revolution while Sadat's widow, Jehan Sadat, signed copies of her recent book, My Hope for Peace. Conversation turned to Iran's past and breathless hopes for a return to the monarchy under the shah's son, Reza Pahlavi, the crown prince, who now lives in the United States. "He will be a symbol of unity. His ideal vision is the European monarchy," said Bahman Maalizadeh, who flew from Washington, DC, for the event. "The crown prince says, 'Let there be a free Iran and let's give the choice to the people for what they want for the future'. That's why he asked for a referendum. He says, 'Let's have a free Iran and give the choice to the people'." mbradley@thenational.ae