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Analysis: The Shah Never Really Died, At Least In Iran’s Politics

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and queen Farah during monarch. File photo

Despite being deposed and exiled by the Islamic Revolution four decades ago, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, also known as “King of Kings” and “Aryan Sun,” never really disappeared from political life in Iran.

During the first years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, a number of the Shah’s supporters refused to accept that he had really left the country, or believed that if he had left, he would someday return triumphantly to his homeland and reign again.

However, it was a fact that the Shah had left Iran for Egypt on January 16, 1979, and, after wandering from country to country, never receiving a monarch’s welcome, except in Egypt where he died July 27, 1980.

The Islamic establishment that replaced the monarchy interpreted the Shah's death as eliminating the danger of a return to monarchy. It meant the pro-Shah forces were not a serious threat to the newly founded theocratic ruling establishment in the country.

The Shah in Egypt with Anwar Sadat after his exile.
The Shah in Egypt with Anwar Sadat after his exile.

Despite their sporadic shows of opposition to the clerics dominating Iran, they’ve been sidelined as a real political force for nearly four decades. Recently, however, the situation has begun to change.

A 2009 Brookings Institution study found that the Shah’s eldest son and heir to the throne, Prince Reza Pahlavi, who lives in exile in the United States, had no significant political support among Iranians. However, widespread anti-establishment protests in 2017-2018 saw demonstrators waving placards and shouting slogans in support of the monarchy and the prince’s return.

Pro-kingdom movements (monarchists and constitutional royalists) have been gaining momentum and are now viewed by the Islamic Republic establishment as a real threat.

The frontpage of a newspaper proclaims "The Shah is gone", Jan. 16, 1979.
The frontpage of a newspaper proclaims "The Shah is gone", Jan. 16, 1979.

Describing themselves as the "most popular" anti-Islamic Republic opposition movement, the pro-kingdom activists believe that they are on the verge of turning the tables in Iran. Heated debates on social media between members of the pro-republic opposition and the monarchists and royalists about the future of Iran prove the pro-kingdom forces cannot be ignored any longer.

The reason behind the recent shift in opinion about the monarchy is the growing dissatisfaction in Iran with the Islamic system.

Pahlavi has recently fashioned himself as a voice of resistance against the mullahs in Iran. The prince’s supporters insist he is heralding a bright future for Iran and advocating a secular society free of financial and political corruption.

Moreover, they argue the country fared better under the Shah, saying Iran at that time was rapidly moving forward to become an extra-regional power, while the Islamic Republic is on the opposite end, pushing the country toward destruction.
Those who support the monarchy and ardently defend its record assert that the revival of the kingdom and reinstatement of the Pahlavi royal dynasty in Iran is the most suitable route to lead the country back to the road toward progress and prosperity. The only hope for the downfall of the theocratic, authoritarian establishment and Iran's return to its glorious past is following Prince Reza Pahlavi and his benevolent directives, pro-kingdom activists maintain.

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower (R) meets with Iran's Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, 1954
U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower (R) meets with Iran's Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, 1954

In the meantime, other opposition movements seek the downfall of the clerical ruling establishment but are also against the return of the monarchy to Iran. The Shah is dead, and with his death, the monarchy also died for good, they argue.

Nonetheless, pro-kingdom activism continues both inside and outside Iran, and the Shah continues to influence Iranian politics even decades after his death.

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    Morad Vaisibiame

    Morad Veisi is a journalist and an editor at Radio Farda and is considered an expert in affairs related to Iran's IRGC and the Supreme Leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei.