COMMENT 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.
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Askari is Professor of Business and
International Affairs at the George Washington