September 16, 2014

Could Freddie Mercury have thrived in Iran?

Posted by WARREN PERLEY – Editor,
Writing from Montreal

Photo: Wikimedia
Freddy Mercury statue in Montreux, Switzerland.

Since launching in April 2012, I’ve been happily surprised by the number of non-journalists coming forward with relevant story ideas and first-hand knowledge on specific subjects.

Falling into that category is Sima Goel’s analysis of life for women in Iran under the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, compared with their existence under the ayatollahs who replaced him.

What qualifies Sima to write such a piece? Well, she lived under the rule of both the Shah and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who seized power by force on February 1, 1979. She also openly defied both regimes and almost paid for it with her life, managing to escape Iran in a daring desert flight in 1982.

I knew that Sima, who works as a chiropractor in Montreal, had literary aspirations, having written a 2014 memoir titled, Fleeing The Hijab, A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran. (Those interested in learning more about her book can find information at:

What makes Sima’s article informative and interesting is the way she has combined an analysis of Iranian politics over the last 50 years with copious amounts of personal details from the first 17 years of her life there. It helps to have an author who is a native speaker of Farsi, meaning she likely has greater insight into the many facets of Iranian culture.

Of course, Sima knows well the history of Iran, including the fact that Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s efforts to Westernize Iran were just following in the footsteps of his Brigadier-General father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1921 when, with the support of British money and supplies, he overthrew the Qajar dynasty.

Once securely in power, Reza Shah tried to mandate Western dress and ban the veil for women, but met stiff opposition from devout Muslims and the clergy. He encouraged women not to wear the hijab, and he fined institutions, such as restaurants, hotels and cinemas, which did not allow the sexes to mingle.

Although Reza Shah was supposed to be presiding over a constitutional monarchy, candidates running for election were hand-picked by the military, and ballot counting was overseen by members of the government’s Interior Ministry.

In 1935, he informed the League of Nations that the name Iran, which is how its citizens have referred to their country through most of its history, should be used officially by all countries instead of Persia, which was the name favored by most Western states based on historical precedence arising from the Greco-Persian Wars dating back to the 6th century BCE.

The beginning of the end for Reza Shah came during the Second World War when he refused to allow Iran to be used as a conduit for British military supplies intended for the Soviet Union in its war against its former ally, Nazi Germany, which was Iran’s largest trading partner.

So on August 25, 1941, British and Soviet troops invaded Iran by air, land and sea, taking over the country almost immediately after 15 Iranian divisions surrendered. Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who the occupying Allies felt would be more amenable to their demands.

After the Second World War, Britain’s MI6 and the United State’s CIA orchestrated another Iranian coup d’état, overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, on August 19, 1953. Mosaddegh’s crime? He introduced legislation passed by parliament to nationalize the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company after that British corporation refused his demands for an audit of its books and a renegotiation of the terms granting access to Iranian oil reserves.

After the overthrow, General Fazlollah Zahedi formed a military government which allowed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to rule as an absolute monarch, making him even more powerful than his father, Shah Reza, who in theory had been a constitutional monarch.

Sima’s story concentrates on the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and the ayatollahs who overthrew him in 1979. For those of you who might ask why you should care about Iran’s past, the answer is that knowing about its turbulent, recent history is the only way to understand present-day Iran, which is a major power in the Middle East and likely one of the keys to stopping the Sunni militants, known as ISIS or ISIL, who have overrun Syria and Iraq in the last few months, terrorizing civilians with stonings and beheadings.

President Barack Obama announced in a speech to his nation on September 10, 2014 that the U.S. was putting together a coalition of Western and Arabic nations to fight ISIS, although no U.S. official mentioned Iran as part of that effort until Secretary of State John Kerry said in Paris on September 15, 2014 that the U.S. was open to having confidential communications with Iran about the crisis in Iraq even if Iran had not been invited to join the coalition.

The two nations have not had diplomatic relations since 1979 when militants supporting Ayatollah Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans as hostages for 444 days.

Journalist Kate Brannen of Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine wrote an insightful article on September 10, 2014, pointing out that despite Obama’s omission, Iran is the one country in the world which has already sent forces into Iraq and Syria to battle ISIS.

Aside from weapons, intelligence and military advisers, the Shiite government of Iran is providing hundreds of ground forces fighting alongside the Shiite Iraqi soldiers and militiamen against the Sunni ISIS forces, Brannen wrote. In Syria, Iran has organized thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon – equipped and trained by Iran – to battle ISIS militants fighting to depose Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

Brannen reports that the U.S. and Iran do not coordinate military action or share intelligence and have no plans to do so. Some Americans, such as former Obama national security adviser Douglas Ollivant, think that is a short-sighted policy on the part of the U.S.

Ollivant wrote an analysis in Qatar-based Al Jazeera on September 9, 2014 that the “U.S. should welcome” Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in its fight against ISIS.

But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted on September 15, 2014 that Iran would not cooperate with the U.S. in its battle against ISIS because he views it as a pretext for the U.S. to “dominate the region.” As he was leaving hospital after a prostate operation that same day, The New York Times reported that Khamenei described American statements about fighting ISIS as “absurd, hollow and biased.”

It is against this backdrop of Middle East chaos that Sima revisits the chronology of how Iran – which could have been such a force for positive change in the region, given its size, strategic location and oil resources – has instead become mired in ethnocentric, theocratic dogma which deprives citizens of human rights and reduces economic opportunity for its middle class.

Iran News Update (INU), an online Iranian diaspora publication opposed to the fundamentalist regime, reported that on March 6, 2014 the Iranian parliament’s plan and budget committee released figures showing that 15 million people in that nation, about 20 percent of the population, live under the poverty line with 7 million of them receiving no government support services.

It went on to report in May 2014 that Iranian resistance sources have figures showing the poverty crisis is even worse than that officially reported, with 50 million Iranians living under the poverty line and 10 million unemployed.

Most of the human rights issues analyzed by Sima in her story, including the right to use birth control measures, are still making headlines. On August 11, 2014, it was reported that Iran’s parliament has voted to ban some forms of birth control, including vasectomies, as well as advertising for family planning.

Iranian authorities led by Khamenei say the measure is needed to combat a declining birth rate, preserve Iran’s national identity and combat Western influence.

Opponents of the birth control ban contend that authorities are trying to relegate women to the home in their traditional roles as wives and mothers to offset their surging rate of education and access to the workforce.

Again, the involvement of women in the education sector and in the Iranian workforce are among the many points analyzed by Sima. She quotes from a prescient article written in 2005 by American law professor Louise Halper in the Harvard Review of Law and Gender. Professor Halper noted that despite the return of Sharia law after the fundamentalists grabbed power in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranian women had banded together to upgrade their status, as evidenced by higher enrolments at universities and a larger presence in the job market.

Professor Halper, who passed away on June 21, 2008 at age 63, spent part of her 2005 sabbatical year in Iran, speaking on law and gender in Islamic societies. She was known as a fierce defender of minorities, civil rights and social justice in America and abroad. (Many thanks to her son Reuban Halper for granting us permission to reproduce a photo of his mother for our story.)

The end of August 2014 also marked the 26th anniversary of a one-month period of brutal executions of political prisoners led by then-Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and then-Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who ran unsuccessfully as a so-called reformist candidate in the 2009 Iranian presidential election.

It was late July 1988 and Khomeini had accepted (without much enthusiasm) a United Nations ceasefire to end a stalemated, eight-year war with Iraq, led at the time by Saddam Hussein. The death toll from the trench warfare was high for both sides: an estimated 500,000 Iraqi and Iranian soldiers, with a corresponding number of civilians.

In order to deflect anticipated public unrest over the monetary and human costs of the war, the fundamentalist regime of Khomeini decided to execute thousands of political prisoners in Evin and Gohardasht prisons between the end of July and August 1988. Reza Gafari, a survivor of the massacre, wrote a book titled, A State of Fear, describing the secret executions.

Geoffrey Robertson, an Australian-born barrister with dual British citizenship, documented the massacres, saying the prisoners were tortured and – without being able to mount legal defenses – led straight to the gallows where they were hung from cranes four at a time, or six at a time from ropes dangling from the stage of the prison’s assembly hall.

Their bodies were doused with disinfectant, packed in refrigerated trucks and buried by night in mass graves, the locations of which were – and still are – withheld from family members.

Once again, Sima’s analysis touches upon the political prisoners held in Evin Prison by both the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini, and how she and others took to the streets in protest against such human rights violations.

Her story helps readers understand how Iran, a country with a rich cultural heritage stretching back to the tolerant ancient kingdoms of Persia, has lost its way partially due to a backlash against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s attempt to accelerate that country’s conversion into a Western-style culture without corresponding democratic freedoms and human rights.

She even touches on the cultural influence of Zoroastrianism, which is the oldest religion in the world and was the primary one of Persia until the Islamization of that country in the 7th century CE, at which time most Zoroastrians fled, many to India.

Here’s an interesting footnote for those of you not up on the Zoroastrian religion, of whom there remain just over 25,000 adherents living in Iran as of a 2012 census. Its most famous son was Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist and lyricist of the rock band, Queen, who was voted in a 2009 Classic Rock poll as the greatest rock singer of all time.

Mercury was a Parsi, one of two Zoroastrian sects, born Farrokh Bulsara in the British protectorate of Zanzibar Sultanate, now known as Tanzania. He moved to India with his parents, also British citizens, where he began piano lessons at age 7. Later when living in London, he learned guitar.

Aside from his amazing voice, which was a natural baritone but could range four octaves between bass low F and soprano high F, the flamboyantly gay Mercury was a virtuoso performer known for strutting the stage with bare-chested bravado.

Despite the reality that homosexuality is a crime sometimes punishable by death in Iran, as well as the fact that Western music is censored in that country, it might shock some Westerners to learn that in August 2004 the Iranian government officially approved for sale an album of Queen’s greatest hits, including Bohemian Rhapsody, written by Mercury for the band’s 1975 album, A Night at the Opera. Queen, always wildly popular with Iranian underground rock fans who bought and sold bootlegged albums, thus became the first rock act to ever receive official Iranian government sanction.

Nevertheless, one is left to wonder whether the rock world would have ever been blessed with the brilliance of a Freddie Mercury if his forebears, who originated in Iran, had not fled Islamic repression there in favor of freedom.

Published: SEPTEMBER 2014
Inside view of life in Iran under the last Shah and the ayatollahs

Analysis by SIMA GOEL
Writing from Montreal

A Jewish teenage girl shivers in the dark from cold and fear as she burrows into the icy sands of the Iranian desert to avoid detection. A dozen bearded men chanting “Allahu Akbar” pass nearby. If discovered, she will be seized and returned to face torture and execution by Islamic fundamentalists. But she escapes, making her way to freedom in Canada, where she now speaks out about the human rights abuses of women under both the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (inset photo), and the ayatollahs who replaced him.

7,028 Words | 19 Photos | 2 Illustrations

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