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Interview: Farah Pahlavi Recalls 30 Years In Exile

The last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (left), with his wife, Farah Pahlavi, in a royal ceremony (undated).
The last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (left), with his wife, Farah Pahlavi, in a royal ceremony (undated).
July 27 is the 30th anniversary of the death of Iran's last imperial ruler, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The shah left Iran in December 1978 after 37 years in power. After living in Morocco, the United States, Mexico, and Panama, he went to Egypt where he died in a Cairo hospital on July 27, 1981. His body was laid to rest in the Al-Refai Mosque in Cairo.

His wife, Farah Pahlavi, spoke to Radio Farda's Jean Khakzad about the incidents of those times.

RFE/RL: I would like to ask you whether it's true that the shah was unaware of the illness he suffered from and that he was kept in the dark regarding his illness?

Farah Pahlavi:
His illness, as I have mentioned in my book, was immune-system cancer. It is true that he was not told the word "cancer" on some occasions, but he was fully aware of his illness. His Majesty had discussed it with his doctor, asking whether he had about two years' time in order that his son could reach a certain age [before his death] and in order that he would be able to complete the work he had started. This clearly shows that he was aware of his illness.

I remember discussing it myself with his doctors, asking them not to keep him in the dark, as he was the ruler of a country and he had some decisions to make.

RFE/RL: When exactly did His Majesty find out about the cancer?

He found out when the French doctor was summoned. I myself was unaware of it until I found out in 1977. When the doctors arrived -- the specialist for blood cancer and one of the most renowned French [professors], Jan Barnard -- His Majesty knew exactly what he suffered from when they checked his blood hemoglobin level. I believe that was the time when he found out.

RFE/RL: Let's now discuss another period of your life next to the ruler of Iran: your exit from Iran. Numerous countries whose leaders called themselves allies of the Iranian ruler created barriers to the entry and residence of you and His Majesty. What was the shah's reaction to this behavior, did it have a political aspect, and did those leaders have any interest in the formation of the Islamic republic?

I try to forget about the bitter past as I [also] recommend for my fellow countrymen. I do not live in the past, I live in the present, always hoping for a brighter future. This is my message to all my countrymen.

Farah Pahlavi in January 2009
But these incidents are a part of history. I shall never forget the tears in the eyes of the shah the day we left Iran. In that deserted runway and in the aircraft, my only thought was whether it was the last time or would [we ever] return. We first went to Egypt, where the then-president, [Anwar] Sadat, accepted us. The downfall in Iran had not started yet. We then went to Morocco, where the late King Malik Hassan accepted us.

Things changed then, after the downfall on February 11, 1979. I shall never forget how I was following the news on the radio in Morocco. We no longer knew where we could be accepted after that. I should mention that His Majesty had kept himself [despite] all the lies and conspiracies and his only worry was the Iranians and their nation.

I think, as a politician, he had realized that the leaders were after their own political interests and they would very much like to establish relations with the [upcoming] regime in the country. But their inhuman behavior was terrifying, along with all the lies that the media would publish. I used to wonder for years, all those who wrote on the [subject] of human rights back then, how did they remain silent after all the inhuman incidents in Iran during the later years? [It was no] coincidence [that] the downfall of the shah [led to an Iran in which] the Iranians no longer had any human rights.

I believed all those incidents were a mixture of the trouble that resided within them, [the feeling of] insufficiency of all those who were against the imperial rule of Iran. There was a controversy on political ideology and the Cold War was going on. There was communism and then there was Russia, along with severe outside pressure that contributed to the matter. All this is being written in books now.

Many believed that a revolution was not the answer to these inconveniences. I consider many of the officials of the Islamic republic as the ungrateful children of the 30-year-old politics of the countries that now receive death slogans, as it is obvious that foreign policies of that time contributed a great deal to the downfall of imperial rule.

RFE/RL: Thirty years ago, when you and the shah went to Panama, many Islamic republic officials, including then-Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, announced that the shah should be handed over to the Islamic republic. Was this true? And if it was, how were you informed and able to leave Panama?

Yes, this is in fact true. Unfortunately, after the kidnapping incident at the American Embassy, we had to leave New York and the only country that accepted us was Panama, where we went to from Texas.

Mrs. Sadat had called me back then and had [invited] us to come to Cairo. That was when the U.S. government sent two officials to speak with His Majesty and ask him not to leave for Cairo. I was present in that meeting and I insisted that we leave, as many journalists and friends had called and told us that it was better to leave.

The plane that was to be sent by the Egyptians was canceled [at the] last minute and we were told by the Americans that they would provide us with one. That plane landed in the Azore Islands and we waited for several hours there in [a state of] utter surprise. I remember meeting the Portuguese foreign minister there after a long time. They said they asked the American authorities [about] the reason for our delay but were refused any information. Even their ambassador had asked the U.S. State Department in Washington the next day but was not given any answer.

I want to mention here that [U.S.] President [Jimmy] Carter had called Ashraf Qarbal, the then-Egyptian ambassador to Washington, telling him that he had called President Sadat trying to convince him not to let the Iranian shah enter Egypt, as it could [hinder] the Arab-Israeli peace talks, but he had not received an answer.

The American aircraft waited for hours in any case, which was quite concerning. His Majesty was also suffering from a fever then. Pierre Salinger, a journalist, writes in his book that Carter had contacted Mr. Ghotbzadeh and was offered the release of the hostages in exchange for returning the Iranian shah to Panama. Mr. Ghotbzadeh was unable to gather the Revolutionary Council due to the Iranian New Year holidays, hence he was unable to pass a decision. He had apparently mistaken the time difference with Panama, and had announced the return of the shah, which was later said to be canceled, and we ended up in Egypt.

RFE/RL: You mentioned Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who allowed you to enter Egypt. Was this due to friendship or was there any profit in it for him?

It was completely out of his friendship and good human nature as he had no personal gain from it. Egyptians had not forgotten the help they received from Iran during their troubled times of war.

I remembered that when the shah was hospitalized, many foreign journalists came to gather negative reactions from the people of Cairo. But the opposite happened, the shop owners in the streets along with the general population were extremely glad to have the Iranian shah in their country. They considered us family who helped them in difficult times.

There were some chaotic reactions but fortunately, Anwar Sadat, his people, and his government accepted us in a friendly manner. It was [the first time] that we'd felt comfortable in months. It is for that that my children and I, along with several Iranians, are grateful to Anwar Sadat and the Egyptian government. Anwar Sadat gave a lesson to the world that even in politics there is room for kindness and human behavior.

RFE/RL: Besides the bitter memories of the 30 years that you referred to, might there be some pleasant ones that you'd care to mention for us?

True, there were bitter moments but there were also sweet memories during those 30 years. One of the bitter memories was the death of Leila, my daughter, for which I thank the Iranian nation, who went to the Niavaran Palace holding candles to pay their respects. I think it was good that His Majesty was not alive to witness her death.

Especially, I believe that God [must have] liked him to have taken him away before he could see the Iranian nation in that condition, and especially Saddam [Hussein]'s attack on Iran. I am grateful to all those Iranian soldiers who fought this war bravely and did not allow our nation to fall into alien hands.

There were in fact some sweet memories, too, for instance the graduation of the kids from their universities, the wedding of Prince Reza with Yasamin, the birth of my grandchildren, and lastly the completion of school of my older grandson, who will attend university next year.

Also there is the great news from Iran that the people are holding on. Regardless of all the pressures upon them, people are fighting bravely against this suppression. The success of Iranians all across the world is also the happiest thought. What I always say is that goodwill wins over bad.