The discovery of a decades-old corpse unearths a new threat to Iran’s theocracy
The latest threat to Iran’s theocracy — already struggling to contain public anger over unemployment, economic mismanagement, bank failures, social restrictions and environmental damage — seems to have risen from the dead.
Construction workers renovating a Shiite Muslim shrine near the former tomb of Reza Shah Pahlavi in Tehran this week stumbled upon a mummified corpse, fueling speculation that it could be the missing remains of the late king who died in 1944.
The tomb was demolished soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution as Iran’s new clerical rulers sought to erase all traces of a secular monarchy that by then was widely seen as corrupt, despotic and dissolute. The body was never found in the ruins, and over the years, the theocracy has quashed any appreciation of the royal period.
But the passage of four decades, and deepening frustration with the clerics, have revived the reputation of Reza Shah, whom many now regard as an enlightened dictator who used taxes and burgeoning oil revenues to modernize the country.
“There is some nostalgia because of the utter failure of the regime in virtually every facet of Iranian life,” said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. “An economy in shambles, an international persona as pariah, double-digit unemployment and inflation, a failing financial system [and] profound oppression against women are good breeding grounds for either despair or nostalgia.”
Reza Shah was the father of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s last king, who was overthrown in the 1979 revolution, when clerics led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pledged to build a paradise of Islamic law and share Iran’s oil riches among all citizens.
It was a sign of how far the theocracy has fallen short of those promises that last December, when the most significant anti-government protests in a decade broke out nationwide, some demonstrators chanted for a return to the monarchy.
This week, Iranian social media accounts feverishly shared photos apparently taken by construction workers clearing ground for an expansion of the Abdolazim shrine. The images showed a head and torso caked in dirt — but with the crooked arm and expressionless gaze that matched how Reza Shah appeared in his open casket before the theocracy’s wrecking crews tore down the mausoleum in April 1980.
Even as forensic experts were said to be examining the remains, Reza Shah’s grandson, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, said they “most probably” belonged to the late king. In a statement, he called on Iranian officials to ensure the body is buried again in Iran in a marked grave “known to all Iranians.”
“I ask the Iranian people, as the true guardians of Reza Shah’s legacy, to join and support my family, whether through social media or peaceful public protests, as we pursue this matter in order to ensure that it is handled and resolved appropriately, with transparency and dignity befitting Reza Shah and Iran,” he wrote.
But analysts said Iran’s ruling establishment was not prepared to concede any of that.
“If the mummy turns out to be Reza Shah, the regime will have a hard time stopping the burial place from becoming a rallying site for anti-regime forces,” Milani said. “If the regime claims, as they are likely to, that the mummy was not Reza Shah, I doubt too many Iranians will believe the claim.”
Mostafa Ajorlou, a spokesman for the Abdolazim shrine, denied the body was the shah’s, saying that because the surrounding area used to house a graveyard, “it is natural to discover corpses in the area during the construction process.”
“The face of the corpse was not even identifiable, and the rumors that have been spread have only been made up by cyberspace,” Ajorlou said, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.
State media were offering scant coverage of the story, but it remained the talk of Tehran, where many said it was time to reassess the legacy of a man described as the founder of modern Iran and afford him a proper burial.
“When people had fleas in their clothes and they were lousy, and there were not enough bathrooms in the country, no university, no national army — everything he did was from scratch,” said 67-year-old Ali, who like others interviewed for this story gave only his first name out of fear of angering the government.
“He started with no petrodollars, and he built railways, roads, our first textile factories, vocational schools — just name it. So why not respect him after 40 years of revolution?”
During his 16-year reign, from 1925 to 1941, Reza Shah presided over ambitious construction and education projects. He provided scholarships for students to study overseas, introduced birth certificates and demanded that foreign countries cease referring to the country as Persia, and adopt the name used by its people: Iran.
But he angered devout Muslims by requiring citizens to wear Western clothes, forbidding women to cover their hair at public functions and levying high taxes that were seen as un-Islamic.
After he abdicated following the 1941 British-Russian invasion of Iran, the four-decade rule of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was marked by growing corruption as the royal family was accused of siphoning oil revenue to build a private fortune — until he was overthrown by the clerics.
Reza Shah died in South Africa in 1944 at age 66. His body was taken to Egypt and returned to Iran in 1951, when he was given a national funeral and buried in the mausoleum.
Iran’s rulers have tried to shape modern perceptions of the monarchy through propaganda — including a lavish series aired recently on state TV that portrayed the royal family as greedy plunderers of national wealth. But those efforts seem to have added to the Pahlavis’ mystique.
“The regime is obsessed with historical dramas and documentaries about the ‘evils’ of the monarchy, but of course these programs simply keep the monarchy front and center in the people’s imaginations,” said Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
“And since they don’t believe the regime, they turn to satellite TV stations that produce their own much more positive accounts of the monarchy.”
The discovery of the corpse came at a moment that for some Iranians held the hope of political change: It was the week Reza Shah’s coronation took place nearly a century ago, and the year when Iran will mark the 40th anniversary of the revolution.
“It’s a meaningful coincidence,” said Ezzatallah, a 65-year-old gift vendor minding his empty downtown shop.
“If it is Reza Shah, and the authorities put his corpse on display, I will be the first to go for a pilgrimage to see him,” he said. “He modernized Iran. We need someone like him: a good dictator.”
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.
Shashank Bengali covers Iran for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @SBengali