Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stands as air force commanders salute during their meeting in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 7, 2017. (AP)

By Alireza Nader

February 1, 2020

The State Department released a video earlier this month showcasing the rights Iranians enjoyed before a radical Islamist dictatorship came to power in 1979. Many Iranians and Iranian Americans celebrated the video on social media, but there was also a backlash from critics who condemned the video for “whitewashing the human rights record of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi,” Iran’s prerevolutionary monarch. The legacy of the shah is destined to remain controversial, yet the critics miss the point: The State Department is reaching out effectively to millions of Iranians struggling for freedom after 40 years of the Islamic Republic’s brutal and tyrannical rule.

As a crashing economy and mass protests weaken the clerical regime, Iranians struggling for a better future take a measure of comfort and even inspiration from nostalgic memories of the better lives they or their parents had before 1979. Yet acknowledging the past is very different from wishing to repeat it.

For many in Iran, the shah’s reign marked a golden era of industrial modernization, economic growth, international prestige, and private freedoms. At the same time, the shah was autocratic. Yet Iran has experienced a Pahlavi revival in recent years.

Many demonstrations in the past two years have featured slogans supporting the Pahlavis, including, “Come and save us, crown prince,” a reference to exiled Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who appears to have a considerable following both within and outside Iran. Pahlavi is a popular guest on the major Persian-language broadcasts based outside of Iran, such as Manoto and Iran International. Even BBC Persian, known for pro-regime (reformist) sentiments, has been forced to feature him. Pahlavi also appears to have a widespread following on social media, such as Telegram, Instagram, and Twitter.

For now, one cannot rigorously assess Pahlavi’s popularity inside Iran. Nor do positive feelings toward the shah or the crown prince mean that Iranians want a new monarchy. Many Iranians likely do not know precisely what they want next, but a decisive majority probably don’t want the Islamic Republic. Memories of the Pahlavi era help Iranians to conceive a future better than the present. It’s smart and certainly not historically dishonest for the State Department to show that it shares this understanding of the past.

Prerevolutionary Iran had its own darkness, but the shah was not the bloodthirsty ogre depicted by left-leaning Western and Iranian intellectuals and journalists. In his book, Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran, Andrew Cooper details the falsehoods whispered into the ears of Western journalists by Iranian revolutionaries regarding the atrocities committed by the shah’s regime. Abolhassan Banisadr, a close aide to Ayatollah Ali Khameini and later the Islamic Republic’s first president, admitted to Cooper that he and his team lied about the scale of human rights abuses committed by the monarchy in order to turn the West against the shah.

While there were grave human rights violations under Pahlavi, they pale compared to the atrocities of the Islamic Republic. According to Cooper, executions and the killing of protesters under the shah may have numbered in the low hundreds. The current regime killed an estimated 1,500 protesters in just the final months of 2019. Its early years were also bloody. There were several thousand killings in 1988 alone. The nostalgia for the Pahlavi era is, in part, rooted in this juxtaposition. Today, Iran is known for things unimaginable before 1979, including terrorism, gender apartheid, the hanging of gays, the mass murder of Syrians, lethal sectarian strife in Iraq, and the killing of Israelis and Americans.

Some Iranians may actually favor a return to the Pahlavis. Many anti-regime protests in the last two years have featured the cry of, “Return to Iran, our shah,” and, “What a mistake we made to have a revolution.” But Iran’s modern history clearly demonstrates a growing desire for constitutional, representative government. Pahlavi knows this and supports liberal democracy for his homeland.

To build a better future, both the Iranian people and their friends in the United States must recognize the successes as well as the mistakes of the past. Iran is a dismal place today, but Iranians have reason to hope. The Islamic Republic is a volcano of discontent. Large, countrywide demonstrations against the theocracy keep erupting. Iranians are ever bolder and more explicit in what they want.

It certainly behooves Washington, both Democrats and Republicans, not to improve the financial health of a regime that so brutally oppresses its own people. This is, of course, exactly what President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal did. Democracy isn’t a dirty word among the Iranian people; it shouldn’t be a far-fetched idea for Americans struggling to develop a coherent Iran policy.

Foundation for Defense of Democracies

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.