PBS MediaShift: Century-Old Groundwork Fuels Internet Interest in Iran Today

PBS MediaShift: Century-Old Groundwork Fuels Internet Interest in Iran Today

I just penned this for PBS’ MediaShift:

by Cyrus Farivar, August 3, 2009

A couple of years ago, while browsing in a Philadelphia bookstore, I found a small red hardback book. Its worn woven cover was used, but in decent condition. The side of the book, in a matching faded red background, had a small vaguely Islamic curved label that reads in gold lettering: Mission for my Country / His Imperial Majesty Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi Shahanshah of Iran.

This was the Shah’s autobiography, published by Hutchinson & Co. in London, in 1960. I happily paid $10 for it and took it home. But I never read it. It was a curiosity more than anything. Plus, the color photo of the Shah on the title page, dressed in a light gray suit with a red tie, reminded me of one of my great uncles. His dark bushy eyebrows framed his eyes that stare squarely back off the page, while his black and gray hair still showed echoes of his youth at the age of 41.

The opening line of the book, which I’ve read many times, verges on the ridiculous:

I still clearly remember an incident when, as a young Crown Prince, I was at school in Switzerland. Our milkman asked me one day which I came from, and when I told him Persia, he said: “Oh yes, I have heard of Persia. That’s in America!”

I love that in a single sentence, Pahlavi manages to evoke two lofty images at once — that he was a “Crown Prince,” and Switzerland, a safe, quiet Alpine country where international royalty stow away their cash and their children. But as silly as this episode may seem now, the Shah, as a Crown Prince, was helping to foment the beginnings of Iran’s reputation in Europe and North America: he was one of many Iranians who were initially educated in Europe — especially France and neighboring francophone Switzerland.

The Shah himself is part of an unacknowledged groundwork of reputation that has been laid between the West and Iran. And it’s precisely for this reason that many Iranians and non-Iranians in America today are so compelled by what’s going on in Iran in a way that would be unlikely if such post-election turmoil was going on in another country in the region. We’ve been primed.