Fusion: the man on the peacock throne

Cyril Bennett in Associated-Rediffusion’s house magazine, Fusion, on ‘A King’s Revolution’

A new road. The Shah of Iran is opening a new road which crosses the Elburtz Mountains and links Tehran and the Caspian Sea.
An old well. A peasant is drawing water from an old well outside his village as his ancestors have done for centuries.

The road is symbolic of the changing face of Iran, for much money is being spent on improving communications. The well pinpoints the greatest problem Iran has to face – the shortage of water.

‘A King’s Revolution’ is the title of Associated-Rediffusion’s fifth programme in the Intertel series. It was filmed in Iran and tells of the Shah’s campaign to reform his country. Previous Intertel productions by Associated-Rediffusion have been set in Asia, Europe, North America, and four countries receiving American aid – Cambodia. South Vietnam, Pakistan and Ghana – this last programme was titled ‘America Abroad’. The others dealt with South Vietnam (‘The Quiet War’), France (‘The Heartbeat of France’) and Canadian relations with the USA (‘Living with a Giant’). These programmes were screened in the four major English-speaking countries of the world through the International Television Federation – Intertel. The members of the federation are the National Educational Television and Radio Center and the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company of America, the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

It is planned to show ‘A King’s Revolution’ over the British Independent Television network on Wednesday, January 1, 1964, and subsequently throughout the world . . . previous Intertel productions have had an audience of between 40 and 50 million people.

The first article on these pages is by cyril bennett, Associated-Rediffusion’s head of features, and the second article is by susan wright.

From 'Fusion', the house magazine of Associated-Rediffusion, issue 33 from December 1963

THE MAN ON THE PEACOCK THRONE

Once Iran was the centre of a civilisation which spread all over the Middle East. This portion of a relief in the ruins of ancient Persepolis is some 2,000 years old. The Shah (right) finds inspiration in the history of his country but knows that great traditions are no substitute for modern ideas.

Each summer the Shah of Iran and his family leave the heat of Tehran, their capital, for the cooler breezes of the Caspian. They have a modest white villa, set in a pleasant garden, in a quiet tree-lined town by the sea. Two soldiers stand guard at the gates. It seems an ideal and peaceful setting for the holiday of a king and his family.

But, in fact, the white villa is always empty; the two soldiers preserve nothing but the illusion that the Shah is in residence.

He and his family live, perhaps half a mile away, in a small house built on steel girders and standing on the sea, at the end of a long stone jetty, wide enough for only one car. The Shah’s bodyguards patrol the jetty at both ends; other soldiers watch constantly from look-out posts, still more troops circle the house in fast motor boats.

These elaborate security precautions could merely point up the fact that the Shah, like many other Middle East Kings, must always be alert to the dangers of assassination. One of the things that makes the Shah of Iran so different and so unique, is the nature of his enemies.

Ali Akbar, a member of the Knowledge Corps or Army of Knowledge, stands anxiously in the background as Abbas Sayadi, inspector of schools, takes his class to check on their progress. Abbas Sayadi, who features in the programme, is determined that the children in his care shall read and write. In this school in Abnik, as in many others in Iran, there are no desks. The children sit on carpets.

In the West, 44-year-old Shah Mohammed Keza Pahlevi is perhaps best known as something of a playboy king. He is wealthy and handsome, has had two spectacular divorces and three wives; he is a jet pilot, a sportsman and a bon viveur. But the Shah of Iran is also something totally new in the modern world – a king who has become a revolutionary. He has now taken on the immense job of transforming his country into a progressive, industrial nation.

He has launched a programme of social reform that could, if it succeeds, dramatically change the lives of the 22 million people over whom he rides. Ironically, it is precisely the kind of programme that, elsewhere in the Middle East, has come about after the king has been deposed by a revolutionary coup. Thus, the Shah is deeply aware that the success of his gigantic task depends, above all, on his own survival. In these circumstances, the bizarre deception of his decoy villa on the Caspian becomes meaningful, even essential. For if the Shah were assassinated Iran might well erupt into the bloody revolution which he is trying to bring about peacefully.

Iran is one of the oldest countries in the world. Twenty-five hundred years ago it was the land of the Persians, a great imperial power which spanned from Europe to Asia. It was the second oldest civilisation, rich in trade, in arms and in a sophisticated culture. Then, in the passing of history, the empire decayed, the leaders were corrupted, the land was invaded and despoiled and Persia became merely another backward Middle Eastern kingdom. The final link with a splendid past was broken when ancient Persia was renamed Iran.

Although the Shah’s dynasty is short – his father seized the Peacock Throne in 1925 – he feels that he is the inheritor of a proud royal tradition. And he has learned the one inescapable lesson of Iran’s history, that the country has prospered and advanced only under strong and enlightened kings.

The recently built Karadj Dam supplies electricty and drinking water for Tehran, besides helping the irrigation of land. It also has another advantage – the city dwellers can come to swim, boat and water-ski. This dam is the second largest in Iran and the eighth largest in the world.

In ‘A King’s Revolution’ the Shah recalls precisely when he first decided to recreate this historic role of the Persian kings.

‘This started long ago,’ he says, ‘when I was a young boy in Switzerland making my studies. I was thinking to myself that if, one day, I had a say in the affairs of my country, I would try my best to raise the standards of living of my people, and of our society, to the level of the modern countries of the world.’ Anyone who would seek to change Iran must first conquer the land itself. Surrounded by huge mountains, Iran even today is a gaunt, dry skeleton of salt and sand desert. More than half of it is an arid, irrecoverable wasteland. Three-quarters of all Iranians are peasants, who must drag a living from the unyielding soil. They are scattered throughout a land 14 times the size of Great Britain, and fragmented into 50,000 villages. Few of them can read or write, but they still bear the stamp of the Persian culture. Even the illiterate are lovers of tradition and fine craftsmanship, they are natural orators who venerate the Persian poets.

While the physical structure of the country, and the personality of the people have combined to resist change, many other factors have also conspired to keep Iran backward and depressed. There is the granite barrier of Islam, a religion that fixes life to a pattern set centuries ago; there is the aristocratic and wealthy elite, reluctant to give up their power and privilege; there is the inefficient and ponderous bureaucracy that is a dead hand against progress. Corruption, always prevalent in the Middle East, has become so interwoven with normal life that Iranians accept and justify it with the old proverb, ‘Let no man of rank be a tree without fruit’.

This, then, is something of the size and scope of the Shah’s problem. At first, fired by the idealism of his Swiss schooldays, he tried to put his reform over by personal example. He gave away his own lands to the peasants who worked them, hoping that other wealthy landowners would do the same. He implored the merchants of the bazaars to pay their taxes promptly, so that the Government could finance public work projects. When this persuasion failed, the Shah realised that if he was to save his country, and perhaps also his throne, he must act alone and translate his dreams into law.

Villagers farming
A typical village scene. Only two out of the population of 120 in a village like this can read and write. The Shah's reform plans mean that the peasants will become landowners instead of all working for one landlord. One of the few regions where nature has givem the nation a square deal lies near the Caspian Sea. Rice is one of the principal crops.

Today no man in Iran may own more than a single village. All land over a specified acreage must be given to the peasants, who own and cultivate it, working through village cooperatives.

This one law has dramatically demonstrated to the people that the Shah’s plan is more than a paper reform. And the Shah is aware that these illiterate supporters must be educated to understand and use the new weapons that he is giving them. So he has created a Knowledge Corps of young soldiers who are sent, as part of their military service, to remote villages as teachers.

It is as much a revolution of attitudes, as one designed to bring material benefits. As well as building dams and hydro-electric projects the Shah is trying to emancipate the Moslem women of Iran, so that they may take their equal place rather than remain in servitude, in the new society he is trying to develop. Inevitably, as with all reformers, the Shah has created new enemies. The wealthy land-owners hate him for robbing them of profitable villages; the Mullahs resent him for weakening their influence over the Moslem faithful; the young soldiers who he has mobilised to fight illiteracy are anxiously watching the revolution; finally even the dispossessed and the poor, to whom he has promised so much, are now impatient for the promises to be fulfilled. For the Shah there can be no turning back.

‘A King’s Revolution’ tells the story of this extraordinary monarch, of the promises he has made to his people, of the problems he must overcome if this revolution is to succeed. It is a contemporary story set in a land as old as the Scriptures.

‘A King’s Revolution’ will, I think, add a new dimension to Intertel’s purpose of studying nations in transition. For it is the first Intertel programme to deal with a country in terms of the one man who is providing the dynamic of change.

Cyril Bennett

Don Alton

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