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Fall of the Shah of Iran: Memories of St. George, Utah

Fall of the Shah of Iran: Memories of St. George, Utah
Author Collage from Historical Photos

I'm not sure why, but I vividly recall where I was when the Shah of Iran fell, when restive mobs assumed control, and the glory of His Majesty was no more. It was 1979, and I was a nine-year-old on vacation with my parents, enjoying splendid desert highways in my father's new car, as he and my mother smoked cigarettes and ate rolls of peppermint Life Savers. In carefree fashion, we were heading for the Hilton in St. George, Utah, marveling at the scenery, appreciating bands of color that stretched across innumerable rock formations, the glorious Southwest at its finest.

I enjoyed our vacations, as my mother allowed me to jump on hotel beds with my shoes on and watch Saturday morning cartoons with abandon. Looking back, I suppose the extra privileges made up for the haze of cigarette smoke and long hours on the road, most of which I spent dozing and listening to the jazz albums my father cherished but I had yet to appreciate. Those were the good old days, years before so much unrest made the Middle East its own kind of horror.

At the time, the situation in Iran was little more than another coup. A propped-up potentate, wrapped in gold braid (and decorated with a farcical number of medals) had fallen by the hand of his own people. And the picture was right there on the hotel television, creased with lines of poor reception, and narrated by the voice of an excited foreign correspondent. The old TVs were quite unreliable, images often streaked by annoying horizontal lines and grains of overwrought color, but I digress. Interestingly, one broadcast from that time remains clear in my memory, so many years later.

The Prize in-Hand

On the occasion when mobs stormed the imperial palace, a realm once forbidden to the masses, a young man grabbed the souvenir of a lifetime and posed with delight. Smiling in triumph, the protester donned a military hat, replete with gold embellishments, fine fabric, and a medallion of state, every bit the relic of a fallen empire. As a child, I marveled at the sight and felt a bit envious, knowing that I had no such opportunity to acquire a fancy souvenir. And this is what I remember when thinking back to St. George, Utah of 1979: The Shah's palace became the scene of mob violence, but that hat was amazing.

Over the years, I became more aware of the great political significance involved, as the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, ushering in an age of terror. Of course, the Shah had done the same, albeit with more flair and luxury. His secret police terrorized political opponents as the royal family waterskied and chatted with European monarchs. Perhaps it was the glittering semblance of legitimacy that set the Shah apart, with his tennis outfits and stunning wife, and, no less, his enthusiastic adoption of pomp and court ceremony. Enacting Hollywood scenarios is a requirement for any stylish monarch, especially those who favor despotism. And the Shah of Iran was a master of the art.

An Imperial Celebration: The Beginning of the End

Born in 1919, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the final shah, or king, of the Imperial State of Iran who reigned from 1941 until the fall of the regime in 1979. His main political rival had been Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh, best known for nationalizing Iran's British-controlled oil industry to the ire of the West. From there, the democratically elected Mosaddegh was deposed, and the Shah (with support from the United States and Great Britain) assumed centralized control. We all know how that goes. At any rate, his subsidized and brief stint as autocrat gave him an extraordinary opportunity. In 1971, to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the empire that gave him his credibility (at least ostensibly) the Shah threw a party--a big one.

As I was only a baby at the time, I don't recall the television interviews that took place in the Persian desert, as heads of state, legions of waiters, food, and rivers of wine arrived for the festivities. Later, I saw an old piece of footage that seems a bit laughable now. Costumed performers pranced in the sun, as Barbara Walters gushed about the elegance of it all. However, there were a few problems with the grand production.

On the night of the state dinner, the receiving line was disarrayed, and monarchs wandered in awkward uncertainty, all waiting to stand before their host, the "King of Kings." Years later, reporters laughed about the line of dignitaries stumbling forward, coughing from swirls of desert sand, a procession that marked a poignant ending, the closing days of an ancient and once formidable empire.

Then, after the bejeweled night, guests returned to their private tents, which were not of the nomadic variety so common to the region. No, these were accommodations of high elegance, with every detail brought to bear for the occasion; personal care items, radios, elegant furniture, and crystalware kept the dignitaries comfortable and buzzing with conversation. However, as the multitude of kings enjoyed luxury, trouble was brewing for their illustrious host.

Although a monarch by lineage, the Shah did not possess true sovereign power. Having forgotten his dependence on the United States and Great Britain, and miscalculating the oil market, the roughly $90 million he spent on a party for fellow elites became an issue--a PR disaster that increased daily by orders of magnitude. And remember, those were 1971 dollars. In today's currency, the bill would have approached half a billion, or thereabouts, a bit problematic for a nation gripped by poverty and the growing influence of radical Islam.

A mere eight years after the party, the King of Kings was fleeing for the tarmac, never to return to his beloved Persian sands or the luxury he once knew. The last Shah of Iran passed away in 1980, having taken up his final residence in Egypt as an exile. I wonder if any of his former party guests came to visit or, in a spirit of reciprocation, invited him for an elegant dinner and snifters of brandy. Anyway, my memory of his erstwhile empire is linked to our vacation in St. George, Utah, by comparison, a rather modest experience of the desert.

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