“We’re all aware of the Islamic republic’s terrible human rights record,” said Holly Dagres, a nonresident Iran analyst with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “But the Trump administration wants to demonize the Iranian government every way possible, even if it means whitewashing the human rights record of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.”
So who were Iran’s monarchs, and what’s the once-royal family up to now?
The Pahlavi dynasty
The Pahlavi family reigned over Iran from 1925 to 1979. Founding father Reza Shah Pahlavi was born Reza Khan and came from a humble background. He soon rose up the ranks from soldier to military leader to oust the last ruler of the Qajar dynasty, which consolidated power in the late 1780s. Reza Shah held court until 1941, when a British and Russian invasion forced him to abdicate. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, took over.
The younger Pahlavi wasn’t as beloved or as confident a ruler as his father. But then the tides turned, at least for a bit, in his favor. In 1953, the United States and Britain were confronted with a problem: Iranian nationalist leader Mohammad Mossadegh had been elected prime minister and was pushing to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, in which the two Western powers were heavily invested. In the political upheaval, the shah fled. So the CIA and M16, loath to lose access to Iran’s markets, orchestrated a coup to oust Mossadegh and return the shah. Iran’s ruler was now back — and determined to hold on to power.
Pahlavi’s reign had advantages for many Iranians, such as rapid economic growth, urban development, a modernizing education system and social advancements for women. It also had its disadvantages, mainly political repression by the state, backed by the feared intelligence agency, SAVAK. Members of the political opposition were routinely jailed and tortured, among other abuses.
“Comparatively, Iran was in a much better place in the 1970s than it is today,” said Roham Alvandi, an associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “At the same time, there is a reason there was a popular revolution against the shah. The monarchy was facing a crisis of legitimacy because of the political repression of the shah’s regime.”
After months of revolutionary unrest, Pahlavi left Iran in January 1979. Soon after, it became the Islamic Republic of Iran.
At the time, neither the shah nor Iran’s new leaders were interested in human rights, Alvandi said.
“Looking back on the 1970s from today, we tend to forget how out of fashion liberalism was in Iranian politics,” he said. “Neither the shah nor his leftist or Islamist opponents believed in liberal democracy, but they understood the value of instrumentalizing human rights as a political weapon.”
The Pahlavi family today
No one in the Pahlavi family has returned to Iran since they left.
A cancer-stricken Mohammad Reza Pahlavi died in 1980 and is buried in Egypt. He had five children — one daughter with his first wife and four children with his third wife, Farah, who lives in France. Alvandi said the family’s financial status and sources are murky: They probably retained some money when they left Iran, but it’s unclear how much, and their lifestyle doesn’t appear overly lavish.
Two of the shah’s children died as adults, one reportedly from suicide and another from a drug overdose. The former crown prince, 59-year-old Reza Pahlavi, is based in Maryland.
Farah Pahlavi is remembered fondly by some Iranians who saw her as a supporter of Iranian culture and arts and a moderating force within the isolated monarchy, Alvandi said. For similar reasons, she’s also detested by some monarchists, who blame her for her husband’s decision to not crack down harder on revolutionary forces when he had the chance.
The former queen occasionally takes part in flattering documentaries and interviews. And when tensions with Iran and the United States rise, as they have in recent weeks, the surviving former crown prince starts making the rounds in Washington. In recent days, Reza Pahlavi has been seen speaking on Fox News and to the neoconservative Hudson Institute think tank, where he has expressed support for President Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach to Iran and advocated for regime change.
“My compatriots understand that this regime cannot be reformed and must be removed,” Agence France-Presse reported him saying at the Hudson Institute on Wednesday.
Views on the Pahlavis
Many Iranians still resent the Pahlavis for their repressive and unequal rule, while others, particularity older ones in the diaspora, are angry at how Iran has developed and are nostalgic for the past, Dagres said. Even so, she added, Iranians as a whole aren’t waiting for the Pahlavi dynasty’s return.
“When you lose everything and have to flee Iran and start over in a new country where you don’t speak the language and understand the cultural norms, it’s only natural for an Iranian to be angry and bitter about the outcome of the 1979 revolution and to have nostalgia for the past,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean pre-1979 history should be whitewashed just because we don’t like the clerics in Tehran and what they’ve done to Iran.”
One factor shaping public opinion on the Pahlavis within Iran is Manoto, a satellite channel run by Iranian exiles in London. The station airs pro-Pahlavi shows and documentaries that portray only the positive parts of this history, such as the freedom of nightclubs and women wearing whatever they wanted.
For those “shown a rosy picture of the past with no mention of the human rights violations and poverty that played a role in fomenting the 1979 revolution, it’s only natural that these young Iranians would have certain leanings in favor of the past,” Dagres said.
There’s no accurate polling regarding the Pahlavi family’s popularity in Iran today. But analysts said that, despite the occasional chants in favor of the shah at anti-government protests, the former crown prince has no political prospects within Iran.
Reza Pahlavi “matters in the context of the U.S.,” Alvandi said. “I don’t think he matters that much in the context of Iran. The political future of Iran is going to be decided in Iran. It’s not going to be decided in California.”