Death of a Prince: Latest tragedy to hit Iran's dynasty

The suicide of Alireza Pahlavi, the youngest son of the former Shah of Iran, is a reminder of the futility of the dream that one day the royal family may be restored
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Whatever it was that sustained Alireza Pahlavi – his money, perhaps, his good looks or even a lingering nostalgia for luxuries and status lost – it ran out this week. With a single squeeze of the trigger, the youngest son of the former Shah of Iran, aged 44 and living in a well-to-do corner of Boston, took his own life on Tuesday.

Neighbours in the South End district of Boston won't miss him much, even if they liked to gossip about his royal lineage every once in a while. Almost no one knew the man who always looked debonair in pressed jeans and a blazer, climbing from his Porsche before disappearing into his brownstone home, its windows obscured by interior shutters.

That he generated pavement chit-chat was hardly surprising. He was different. He had been raised as the second in line to the ancient Peacock Throne of Persia, accustomed once to unimaginable privilege. As an adult in Boston he seemed accomplished – he attended Ivy League universities – and had once been touted as the city's most eligible bachelor. But to wonder at the man and his pedigree was to ignore the demons burrowed inside.

The losses of the Pahlavis are well documented. Driven from Iran in 1979 by an Islamic revolution that became a defining moment of the 20th century, his father, the pro-Western Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, died of cancer in lonely exile in Egypt just the next year. In London in 2001, his elder sister, Leila Pahlavi, was found dead in a hotel room from a drug overdose. She too, it appeared, had chosen oblivion over her post-royal existence.

Something else was assuredly afflicting the one-time prince. While he had kept his own head down, he had for years watched as his elder brother, Reza Pahlavi, based outside Washington DC, had intermittently made public appearances to try to keep the Pahlavi flame alive – the notion that the family may return to Iran, if not to rule it, then to drag it out of theocratic night. Yet he knew as well as anyone those efforts were misbegotten.

To those who remain of his family, who yesterday were travelling to Boston to grieve, all this was enough to explain the suicide. "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," a statement posted on the website of Reza read. "Although he struggled for years to overcome his sorrow, he finally succumbed."

If as a child he was pampered with the best teachers and ski trips to St Moritz with paparazzi in tow, as an adult the sense of dislocation was surely unbearable. That, at least, is the conclusion of Mahnaz Afkhami, the shah's former minister for women's affairs, who spoke of him in an interview with the BBC World Service.

"I can only imagine someone who had lived at a level of near adoration by those around him, and seen the grandeur with which his father was treated," she said. "And then to suddenly, really quite suddenly, be dislocated, separated from his parents and also when... 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."

The attempt of the family to turn the death of their brother and son – the former empress and widow of the Shah, Farah Phalavi, remains in exile in Paris – into a symbol of the misery of all Iranians who crave political freedom may be credible in as far as it relates to Iranians who left their homeland when the Shah did. His death is a reminder of the futility of the dream a few still cling to, that the royal family still might one day be restored.

"This represents the story of millions of Iranians who left their country and live with a sense of solitude everywhere in the world... often treated like foreigners," Ramin Shams Molkara, a distant family member who also lives in Paris, said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press yesterday.

But to those who are within Iran's borders, the passing of the former prince might barely be worthy of comment. It received only cursory and hardly compassionate play in the state media outlets yesterday. "Son of ex-dictator of Iran kills himself," the state-run Press TV said bluntly on its web site. Other government outlets emphasised that Alireza was the second of the former Shah's offspring to commit suicide.

If the family is honest with itself, it might want to consider this as a possibility. The man who was once prince was driven to despair because he knew that he and all the Pahlavis remain despised in Iran today, not just by the ayatollahs who overthrew their father but by Iranians at large. If Iranian exiles feel nostalgia for the days of the Shah, they are alone. If the members of this diminishing family abhor what Iran is today – an unforgiving Islamic theocracy built in part upon hatred it has bestowed on the US and its Western allies – they know that it was they who ripened Iran for the events of 1979 that made it so.

It was the megalomania of the shah that enabled Ayatollah Khomeini to lead the revolution and mark the end of centuries of monarchic rule in Persia with celebration. "The crimes of the kings of Iran have blackened the pages of history," he said. "It is the kings of Iran that have constantly ordered massacres of their own people."

Two years ago, Iran came closer than ever before to grassroots rebellion against the regime when opposition leaders stoked the protests denouncing the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the demonstrations were crushed and today Iran is as unforgiving as ever, imprisoning filmmakers who dare criticise the regime, holding American hikers hostage in the hopes of finding leverage with Washington and daring Israel to begin a new conflagration with its boasting of advances in nuclear enrichment technology.

Alireza Phalavi saw no end to this new Iran. That is the legacy of his blood. Only through death could he escape it.

Children of the Shah

The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, died of cancer in Egypt in 1980, a year after he left Iran shortly before the defeat of his remaining forces in 1979. He had four children with his third wife, the former empress Farah Pahlavi.

Reza Pahlavi

The oldest of four children, Reza Pahlavi was heir to the throne of Iran. He left Iran at the time of the revolution and is a peripheral opposition figure to the regime. Mr Pahlavi, who announced the death of his brother on his website, has lived in the US since 1984.

Farahnaz Pahlavi

The eldest daughter studied child psychology and social studies in Egypt and the US after the family's flight.

Leila Pahlavi

The couple's youngest child was nine when they went into exile. Leila worked as a model but suffered from anorexia and depression. She commuted between Connecticut and Europe. She was found dead, aged 31, at a London hotel after a drugs overdose. Her mother said she had never overcome the loss of her father and living so far from Iran.

Alireza Pahlavi

The 44-year-old, who had immersed himself in academia, apparently shot himself at his apartment in Boston.

The four have a half-sister, Shahnaz Pahlavi, from the Shah's first marriage.