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    Middle East
     Aug 18, 2012

The Shah's example to 'pious' leaders
By Hossein Askari

In the early summer of 1978, Iran's then monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was informed that anti-regime activists were conspiring to overthrow him. At a private leadership meeting of the country's Rastakhiz Party Politburo (the only sanctioned party), attended by Iran's prime minister, the minister of court, the Shah's chief of staff, and the party's secretary general and politburo chief, the Shah was advised to take a hard line, arrest all troublemakers and deploy the army to the streets of Tehran.

He refused. "I'm not the colonel of a banana republic," he told his advisers. "I won't open machine guns on my own people to hold on to my throne."

The secretary general of the Rastakhiz party, Mohammad Baheri, got onto his knees and, with tears in his eyes, pleaded with the


Shah: "Your majesty is the father of the nation and you cannot leave your children. Please don't ever repeat these words."

In the months that followed that early summer meeting, demonstrations increased and the Shah did repeat that statement, saying on several later occasions, "I am not going to kill my people to keep my throne."

Most vividly, during one of his helicopter rides looking down on the crowded streets of Tehran, he told those with him "We shall leave, if the people do not want us." And leave he did. In mid-January 1979, against the pleadings of his closest advisers, the Shah and his family left Iran.

As an observer of political, economic and religious developments in Middle East for the past four decades, I have been dismayed by the reaction of today's pious Muslim rulers facing popular uprisings. Today's rulers publicize their Islamic credentials as the pillar of their legitimacy.

Iran, for example, is an Islamic Republic with a Mullah as its leader, and the King of Saudi Arabia is the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques in Islam's most revered cities - Mecca and Medina - and the Islamic declaration of faith and the sword (symbolizing justice) is emblazoned on the Saudi flag.

Yet it was in fact Reza Shah Pahlavi - condemned as a non-believer and deviant by the Islamic Republic's ruling clerics and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Al-Sauds - whose reaction to popular uprisings adhered to the foundational principles of Islam.

I am not here to defend the Shah, make excuses for him or compare his rule to those of others. The Shah was indeed autocratic. Citizens could not criticize him, and his secret police arrested, tortured and even killed those opposed to the regime. It was because of such political repression that many young Iranians who left Iran in the 1960s and 1970s didn't return home and that he was overthrown.

My goal is to see how the Shah would compare to today's Muslim Middle East rulers when it comes to confronting popular uprising and serving at the WILL of the people, a requirement of a truly Islamic leader.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the mullahs are not elected. They dispensed with Iran's 1906 constitution after rising to power in 1979, and rammed through a theocratic constitution that established an all-powerful supreme leader who is not popularly elected. Citizens cannot criticize the supreme leader and are systematically arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed.

Young Iranians are fleeing the country in greater numbers than ever before, awarding Iran the dubious distinction of the country with the world's highest rate of "Brain Drain". Faced with a popular uprising against election rigging in 2009, the clerics turned their paramilitary thugs on the people in a brutal crackdown to stay in power.

Even more shameful, after their "success" in quelling popular demonstrations at home, the clerics are now outsourcing their expertise. They are supporting their only ally, the Baathist Bashar Al-Assad, to savagely crack down on the Syrian population, killing them by the thousands, in his fight to hold on to power.

In neighboring Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud consolidated power over a period of three decades, defeating competing tribes to establish his kingdom in 1932. Since then, the Saudi monarchy has failed to create a modern constitution but claims the Koran for its constitution. The Saudi court system and morality police rule according to the country's unique, fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of the Koran.

Criticism of the Saudi king is not tolerated, and freedom of speech is extremely limited. But when it comes to holding onto power, like Iran's ruling ayatollahs, the Al-Sauds will do anything. They have killed peaceful Shi'ite protesters in their Eastern province, they have cracked down on those asking for more social freedom and worst of all, they have intervened militarily to brutally suppress popular uprisings in Bahrain.

And yet, it was only the Shah - portrayed by many as a tyrant and non-believer - who, when his nation rose up against him, did something that these supposedly Muslim leaders of today are not willing to do. He stepped down.

This is the instance when the Shah outclassed these autocrats as a better Muslim ruler. The fact is that the Shah could easily have crushed all opposition - at the cost of thousands of lives. But by killing one innocent person to hold on to power the Shah would have violated the Unity of Allah's Creation - a most heinous crime in Islam.

By choosing to leave, he effectively disarmed the secret police and the Iranian armed forces. As a result, fewer than 800 people died during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The low number of deaths impressed even the father of Iran's Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Soon after his return to Iran, he said that it was God Almighty, and not the people, who had overthrown the Shah, because the number of those who died would, otherwise, have been much higher.

There you have it. How ironic! In 1979, the Shah was pegged as a ruthless dictator and a "bad" Muslim, but in 2012 he could be assessed as a lenient Muslim ruler, at least in comparison to today's "pious" rulers who, under the banner of Islam, shamelessly use the barrel of a gun to hold on to power.

Hossein Askari is Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.

(Copyright 2012 Hossein Askari)

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