Iran's Exiled Queen Speaks
As protesters flood Iran’s streets, Farah Pahlavi—the deposed empress—recalls the lessons of the 1979 uprising that led to her husband’s painful exile. A conversation with The Daily Beast.
Farah Diba Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran, remembers all too well the last time Iranian youths poured into the streets of Tehran, chanting, throwing rocks, and demanding change: It was the start of the revolution against her husband, the shah of Iran, which ultimately forced the royal couple into exile in 1979 and plunged her life into chaos.
Thirty years later, Pahlavi, who now lives in Paris, feels a new optimism as YouTube and Twitter bring news of the uprising in Tehran’s streets. She’s hopeful that she is watching the beginning of the end of Iran’s theocracy—and the three decades of repressive Islamic rule that followed her husband’s departure.
Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of the Queen
During her reign as Iran’s queen, Pahlavi was the Jackie O. of Iran—a graceful, glamorous figure known as an emphatic advocate for the arts. And even as her husband’s support waned as a result of his autocratic rule, his harsh treatment of political enemies, and close ties with the U.S., she was still admired for her glamour and warmth.
But a new HBO documentary has forced Pahlavi to come to terms with some of the grievances against her husband’s rule. The Queen and I, which airs on Wednesday, is the work of Nahid Persson Sarvestani, an Iranian revolutionary who wanted to reconcile her glamorous childhood image of Farah Diba with the monarch who caused so much pain and suffering for their people. She sought out Pahlavi, who agreed to participate.
In a Q&A with The Daily Beast's Tina Brown, excerpted below, Pahlavi talks about:
•The misplaced hope of the young Iranians who overthrew her husband: “They thought Khomeini would open the door to paradise for them, and we see that he opened the door to hell.”
•Memories of her daughter’s tragic death: “So many young people died because of this regime, even if it was outside the borders, like my daughter.”
•Her support for Obama’s approach on Iran: “He was very diplomatic, pragmatic, and right.”
•Why she bristles at comparisons between the repression under the shah’s rule and the current crackdown: “There is no comparison between what this regime has done in the last 30 years and the way the shah was.”
•Her husband’s regrets: “The hope of my husband was that his son would reign differently…but we cannot overnight become a democracy.”
•How the Iranian spirit has endured despite repression: “They have not been able to stop the creativity of the Iranian people. You can hear the sounds from the underground—rap singing in Persian. Or even the singing, painting, sculpture or theater.”
Tina Brown: There are people who are obviously going to watch these demonstrations on television and see the crackdown on people who are trying to speak up for freedom. And there will be people who will look at that and say, “Well, what is the difference, really, between the squelching of public discourse and public protest that happened during the regime of your own husband?”
Farah Pahlavi: Well, maybe, but there is no use of comparing, of thinking of that. The most important thing today is to support the Iranian people inside of Iran, and people know that there is no comparison between what this regime has done in the last 30 years and the way the shah was.
Do you have any regrets about the way that dissent was handled then? Do you look at this now and think, “There could have been a different way to handle it?”
It’s always the same story. For 30 years, we have been wondering, with all the ifs—you know, hindsight is always easier. There are so many ifs for all of us who were in a position of responsibility, and also many from those who participated in the revolution. There is no use in comparing or thinking of the past. Today we really have to think of today. Today there are many of those who have been against the regime and have the courage to come and say they regret what they have done.
Did your husband have regrets about the way he ruled Iran?
Well, you know, then again, we have to go back 30 years ago, and to the Cold War and the problems we had there. The hope of my husband was that his son would reign differently…but we cannot overnight become a democracy.
As you look at these incredible images streaming in on the TV screen, how do you feel?
Well, I hope. I have a lot of feeling for all these young people, girls and boys and even all the people who are in the street and who are being repressed. And today I heard that, unfortunately, some people have been killed at the university in Shiraz, and the images on the television are mostly in Tehran, the capital city, but there are movements happening all around Iran. And I have a lot of feeling for all of them. And I’m happy that their voice has been heard around the world. And they feel that they have the support of not only their compatriots on the outside, but from the leaders of democratic countries, and it gives them courage. And of course I sent a message to the Iranian people that I am with them, and also urge the policemen and so forth that they are brothers and sisters and not to be repressive against them.
Does it bring back memories—a very different and much, much less hopeful moment for you?
No, it’s more hopeful moments, because frankly, I’m not living in the past, although there are some images which come from the past. But you can see the difference of the people outside in the streets of Tehran today, how they look and what they want. And this is the most important thing. I think these protests are beyond the election, and I think these protests are against the regime which has been there for 30 years. And I have a lot of hope that this is the beginning of the end of a theocracy.
It seems undeniable that this election has been rigged, but what about the passionate support that is there for Ahmadinejad in the rural areas? Are we ignoring them because we in America so want this kind of “yes we can” moment to take hold in Iran? And after all, Iran is not Tehran.
Well Iran is a very ancient country with an ancient civilization and a very strong identity. And in the last 30 years the Iranian people have tasted this regime, whether it is in the rural areas, or the young people who have suffered, or women. They know about the hypocrisy, lies, corruption, oppression, and they don’t want it anymore. They deserve a better regime than what they have tasted in the last 30 years.
Your son Reza has been vocally opposed to this regime for years, and he’s even rumored to be part of exile groups hoping to bring regime change. What is the truth in that? Are your son’s plans now to perhaps try to go back to the country?
Well, like most of the exiles outside of Iran, he has voiced support for the Iranian people, for civil disobedience, and he has encouraged the army and all the guardians of the revolution not to create problems and shoot and imprison people. And the most important thing here, what the Iranian people want, is the support. Although they have forbidden many foreign journalists from reporting and they have blocked Persian language television, people can hear and see. Iranian young people all over the world are sending messages and pictures, and they won’t give up. It’s maybe the beginning of the end of this regime, and maybe, hopefully, the beginning of a democratic regime in Iran, one that the Iranian people deserve.
Yes, it’s astonishing. Do you think the Twitter revolution, as they’re calling it, is the major difference between your day and now? The speed with which people can communicate? You faced a revolution that was not powered not by any of these technological means.
Well, I remember what my son said many years ago: “If Khomeini came with tapes, Khomeini then will disappear with the Internet.” And I think it’s happening.
What relationship do you think Ahmadinejad has with the supreme leader at this point? There’s been some suggestion that he’s very ambitious to push even further—after all, the military seems to be his power base.
We hear there are many fissures among even the powerful groups in Iran. This is not propaganda from the Americans or enemies of the revolution, as they’re called. It’s not coming from outside, it’s coming from inside, and it’s not just the young people or the middle class—it doesn’t exist anymore, the middle class. The majority of Iranian people are poor people, and they live at the poverty level. There are many people unhappy in Iran, because despite the wealth of Iran—not only natural wealth but also human wealth—look where we stand with all the problems: poverty, addiction, and, unfortunately, prostitution and children begging in the street. It’s just heartbreaking.
The former empress discussed the HBO film, The Queen and I, airing tonight.
It started with an email from a young, successful Iranian woman—and I have all this feeling for my compatriots, especially women. I’d heard she was a successful moviemaker, and I’d seen two of her movies which touched me very much. It was terrible, it was very hard, but it was very courageous of her to do it. So I accepted to do a film with her.
It sounds extraordinarily moving. Of course, the timing of it now could not be more relevant.
Yes. The interesting thing is there are much more important things happening today. But the message of the film at the end is that we have to forget about our differences of ideology in the past and work together for the future of Iran and think of Iran tomorrow.
What was the most challenging conversation you had with Nahid [the filmmaker] as you filmed the documentary? Where did she push you to confront things that you hadn’t perhaps confronted recently?
Well, I wish Nahid had given me the chance to… make some comments on the film. You know, at the end of the day, the result was positive, because, fortunately, I have received many, many—the majority of, emails, letters, and calls I have received are positive. Although I was a little bit worried about our supporters—why did I do a film with someone that participated in the revolution and who was a communist? But of course, Nahid at that time was 17 years old, and I blame other people who were much older. They thought Khomeini would open the door to paradise for them, and we see that he opened the door to hell.
You wanted a much more modern way of doing things in Iran, and now the same thing is happening now. You see the forces of repression are still very strong.
Yes, but you know what’s encouraging is in spite of all the oppression, in spite of all the mass brainwashing, of religious fanaticism, you see how they look, our young people?
It’s really wonderful to see that they suppressed music and artistic creativity but in spite of all the oppression, they have not been able to stop the creativity of the Iranian people. You can hear the sounds from the underground—rap singing in Persian. Or even the singing, painting, sculpture, or theater. Preservation of their own culture. And this is very encouraging. As an Iranian, I’m proud to see my compatriots, as Iranians, showing who they are.
What do you think of the Obama administration’s response so far? Do you think the president should have condemned the election results?
Well, I’m not in a position to comment, but what he said, which was heartwarming, is that he gave his support to the Iranian people, to the Iranian youth, women in Iran. I don’t want to comment on the president, but he was very diplomatic, pragmatic, and right.
How do you think Iran can become a democracy? Should there be foreign intervention, or does it need to come from inside Iran? And if it’s thwarted this time, should anybody come in to help make it happen?
It will happen inside of Iran, and it won’t be from outside, but I think it’s very important that the international, free world realizes that they have to give their support to the Iranian people.
Do you feel in your heart you will go back to Iran?
You know, frankly, what the most important thing for me is for Iran to keep its territorial integrity, to become a democratic regime, and to have separation of church and state. I must say that really what happened in our country 30 years ago, it was a big mistake, for not only Iran, but for the Middle East and for the rest of the world. And unfortunately, this religious fanaticism has grown into many other Islamic countries.
You lost your daughter very tragically, a few years back, and this would have been more her generation. What do you think your daughter would have felt watching these scenes? That must be very painful for you.
It is. When I see young people being beaten by guards and policemen, and see them dragged through the street, my heart really goes out to them. So many young people died because of this regime, even if it was outside the borders, like my daughter. I always say, at least I know where the grave of my daughter is. And there are so many mothers who do not even know where children’s graves are. I really admire the courage of the Iranian women today. In spite of all the pressure, their voices are being heard and they don’t give up.