ISTANBUL, Turkey — The youngest son of the late shah of Iran, once second in line to the throne, took his own life on Tuesday in Boston. The suicide of Alireza Pahlavi is the latest tragic event to befall the former Persian royal family, which has sought relevance during a generation in exile outside Iran.
The pro-West Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was ousted by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and died the next year, but his admission to America for medical treatment prompted militant students to seize control of the US Embassy in Tehran.
The shah’s youngest daughter, Leila Pahlavi, was found dead in a London hotel in 2001 after a drug overdose.
The former royals remain widely despised inside Iran because of a decades-long legacy of repressive and authoritarian rule by the shah, whose overthrow brought to an end centuries of Persian monarchy.
In a brief story titled “Son of ex-dictator of Iran kills himself,” Iran’s state-run PressTV noted on Wednesday that the death marks the “second member of the Pahlavi family to commit suicide.”
Since Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential election, members of the former ruling family have tied themselves more closely to the pro-democracy cause in Iran, with Reza Pahlavi – the former crown prince who remains politically active against the Islamic regime in Iran – described on his Website as an “advocate for democracy and human rights.”
A family statement spoke of the “immense grief [at] the passing away of Prince Alireza Pahlavi.”
“Like millions of young Iranians, he too was deeply disturbed by all the ills fallen upon his beloved homeland, as well as carrying the burden of losing a father and a sister in his young life,” the statement on Reza Pahlavi’s website read.
“Although he struggled for years to overcome his sorrow, he finally succumbed, and during the night of the 4th of January 2011, in his Boston residence, took his own life, plunging his family and friends into great sorrow.”
Largely unnoticed in Iran
The suicide passed largely unnoticed in Iran, where decades ago the shah’s rule – restored by a CIA coup in 1953, and punctuated afterward by the brutality of the US- and Israeli-trained SAVAK secret police - became a crucial catalyst for the revolution.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of that revolution, declared that 2,500 years of monarchy had been a disaster, and that the title Kings of Kings, used by Iranian monarchs, was the “most hated of all titles in the sight of God.”
From exile, Ayatollah Khomeini excoriated the shah: “The crimes of the kings of Iran have blackened the pages of history. It is the kings of Iran that have constantly ordered massacres of their own people….”
Effects of life in exile
Alireza Pahlavi was just 13 years old when his father was forced to flee Iran, and had ever since been affected by those events, said Mahnaz Afkhami, the shah’s former minister for women’s affairs, in an interview with BBC World Service radio.
“I can only imagine [the trauma felt by] someone who had lived at a level of near adoration by those around him, and seen the grandeur with which his father was treated,” said Ms. Afkhami, who now also lives in exile in the US.
“And then to suddenly, really quite suddenly, be dislocated, separated from his parents and also when he was with them to witness his father, whom all heads of state almost universally had courted and admired and flattered, was suddenly a pariah, there was no place for him,” added Afkhami.
“It’s not a matter of luxury, it’s a matter of loss of identity, loss of connections… and all the time seeing something really unusual and strange, which was the religious theocracy unfolding inside the country,” said Afkhami.
The former prince received degrees in music from Princeton University and ancient Iranian studies at Columbia University, and did post-graduate work at Harvard.
The youngest Pahlavi son was also affected by the death of his sister, according to one close family friend quoted by the Associated Press. Pahlavi’s depression “grew over time – his departure from Iran, living in exile, the death of his father and then his sister to whom he was very close,” said Nazie Eftekhari. “The deaths were a huge blow to him.”