A dynasty of ill-gotten gains
Yassamine Mather looks at the life of Ashraf Pahlavi who died on January 7 aged 96
As commissioned from Andy Warhol
Ashraf Pahlavi, the twin sister of the ex-shah of Iran, was a deluded, ruthless megalomaniac. Until her last days she believed that the Iranian revolution of 1979 against the rule of her brother was a “plot devised by the secret services in the United States and the United Kingdom”! Contrary to what has been written in the last week - not only by royalist exiles, but even by sections of the liberal opposition, nostalgic for the shah’s era - she was no champion of women’s rights, nor was she a “Lady Macbeth”, as Hamid Dabashi claims in an obituary published on the Al Jazeera website!1
In 1938, inspired by Kemal Ataturk’s westernisation in Turkey, her father, Reza Shah, decided to unveil women as part of his ‘modernisation’ drive. Ashraf, her sister and their mother were amongst the first Iranian women to appear in public wearing a hat instead of the traditional head covering of Iranian women. Like many other aspects of this ‘modernisation from above’, at the end of the day only a minority of urban women - mainly amongst the aristocracy and the middle classes - adopted the new dress code. Attempts to impose unveiling, including the use of police to remove women’s head covering by brute force, only added to the resentment against Reza Shah’s policies. Ashraf Pahlavi, like many in the shah’s court, never understood this - her comments decades later, describing her horror at seeing a demonstration of black-veiled women in Tehran in 1978, is proof of this.
In the few days since her death, the royalist exiles have made exaggerated comments about her work as a champion of women’s rights. Not quite true. The women’s organisation she set up had a marginal impact on the lives of middle class and upper class women, but it did nothing to alleviate the plight of the overwhelming majority of Iranian women - except as the objects of charitable activities. Far from being a champion of women’s rights, she always talked of her own masculine qualities. Far from being a champion of women’s’ rights she always talked of her own masculine qualities. She was proud of being the only child of Reza Shah to be slapped by him, always boasting that she had more guts than her brothers and aspired to become a power in her own right. In her autobiography she wrote: “I confess that, even though since childhood I had paid a price for being a woman, in terms of education and personal freedom, I had not given much thought to specific ways in which women in general were more oppressed than men.”2
In 1941, the United Kingdom and Russia invaded and occupied Iran in response to Reza Shah’s declaration of neutrality in World War II. Accused of harbouring pro-Nazi sentiments, he was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah. The Allies sent him and the rest of the family to exile in South Africa, but Ashraf soon returned to Tehran, setting up her own royal headquarters - mainly to support her brother, who at the time was viewed as weak and indecisive. It is believed that it was she who appointed several of his prime ministers.3
In 1946 she visited the Soviet Union to discuss withdrawal of Soviet troops from northern Iran. A meeting with Stalin, which was supposed to last 15 minutes, ended three hours later and as a parting gesture Stalin gave Ashraf a fur coat as a gift.
According to historians, in the early 1950s Ashraf met Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s nationalist prime minister, on at least two occasions. She tried to convince Mossadegh to take a more conciliatory approach to her brother and, having failed, became one of his major opponents. She was heavily involved in the preparations for the 1953 coup.
In the preceding months Ashraf played a crucial role in Operation Ajax, the CIA-organised military and propaganda campaign to overthrow Mossadegh. Historians have credited her with convincing her brother, Mohammad Reza Shah, to give the go-ahead. According to Stephen Kinzer, author of the book All the shah’s men, Ashraf met CIA agents in Spring 1953. They asked her to use her influence to convince her brother to agree to the proposed coup:
Ashraf was enjoying life in French casinos and nightclubs when one of Roosevelt’s Iranian agents, Assadollah Rashidian, went to visit her … The next day a delegation of American and British agents came to pose the invitation in stronger terms. The leader of the delegation, a senior British operative named Norman Darbyshire, had the foresight to bring a mink coat and a packet of cash. When Ashraf saw these emoluments, Darbyshire later recalled, “her eyes lit up and her resistance crumbled”.4
Ashraf’s own account contradicts this. She claims she was offered a blank cheque if she agreed to return to Iran from her French exile, but refused the money and returned of her own accord.
CIA documents declassified in 2000 and published by the New York Times show the agency’s assessment of the shah at that time as “a man of indecision”. These documents support the suggestion that to ensure progress in the coup plans, those involved relied on “the shah’s dynamic and forceful twin sister” and that she had already been in touch with US and British agents.
Ashraf was a renowned gambler, at times spending long hours in poker games with close friends - some from Iran’s aristocracy. Later she became famous for gambling in the French Riviera, the French press dubbing her La Panthère Noire (Black Panther) after she survived what appeared to be an assassination attempt in 1976. Fourteen shots were fired at her Rolls Royce - a friend was killed and the chauffeur was wounded.5
Throughout the 1960s and 70s there were allegations about Ashraf Pahlavi’s “financial misconduct”. By her own account, she faced hardship in 1953, when Mossadegh’s nationalist government sent her into exile. However, once Pahlavi rule was re-established, she amassed considerable wealth. Nikki Keddie claims:
… part of the story behind the build-up of her fortune may have been that during the Iranian industrial boom, which was driven by a surge in oil prices, Pahlavi and her son, Shahram, took 10% or more of a new company’s stock gratis, in return for ensuring the delivery of a licence to operate, to import, to export or to deal with the government. Government licences were said to be given only to a few well-connected companies in each field. As a result, the need to get and keep a licence became a cost that had to be met.6
There were also widespread allegations about her role in drug-trafficking in Iran - some of the shah’s ministers repeated these claims at the time and later in their memoirs.
In 1980, Ashraf published an article in the New York Times, followed by two books in English: Faces in a mirror: memoirs from exile (1980) and Time for truth (1995), together with a similar autobiographical book in French, Jamais résignée (1981) . Here she respond to rumours about her wealth, arguing it came about not through “ill-gotten gains”. She was particularly keen to rebut the stories that she had profited from drug-trafficking, attributing her fortune to inherited land, which “drastically increased in value with the development of Iran and the new prosperity that was there for all”. She notes that many other Iranians profited from the sale of real estate, but were not accused of financial misconduct because of close ties to the clergy and ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.7
However, before coming to power in 1925, Reza Khan was an officer of the Iranian army, with very little income or land. It is inconceivable that the fortunes accumulated by the Pahlavis and their entourage - fortunes smuggled out of the country around the time of the 1979 revolution, allowing them a life of luxury for the last three and a half decades - derived just from the sale of land. By emphasising this as the main explanation of the family’s wealth, Ashraf Pahlavi gives further credibility to accusations that have survived well beyond the short-lived rule of the Pahlavi dynasty.