On Thursday, the funeral of a now mostly forgotten but once highly visible royal took place in Monaco. Princess Ashraf of Iran, who died on 7 January, was the twin sister of the last Shah, is thought to have wielded great influence during his reign, was a prominent advocate of women’s right and made a career at the UN.
Born five hours after her twin brother Mohammed Reza on 26 October 1919, Princess Ashraf considered their bond ‘the strongest sense of family that I would ever know’. The two of them ‘were like faces in a mirror’, she wrote in her autobiography, which was titled just that: Faces in a Mirror: Memoirs from Exile (1980).
When their father, Reza Shah, was forced to abdicate and sent into exile in Johannesburg in 1941, Princess Ashraf was the only family member who stayed behind in Teheran with the new young Shah. The Princess would play an important political role throughout his reign. In 1946, she was sent to Russia to negotiate with Stalin, who allegedly told her that is her brother “had ten like you, he would have no worries at all”. She also played a role in the downfall of one prime minister and the appointment of at least another.
However, she saw an enemy in the charismatic left-wing politician Mohammad Mosaddegh, who ordered her into exile on the very day he became Prime Minister in 1951. Two years later, the Princess was approached by agents of Britain and the USA, who had decided to remove Mosaddegh, and played a key role in convincing her brother to go along with the coup which removed Mosaddegh and restored the Shah’s power.
Princess Ashraf was closely involved in social issues and in particular in women’s rights. She headed the Women’s Organisation of Iran, whose greatest success was a 1975 act which ‘gave Iran’s women the most sweeping civil rights in the Islamic Middle East’. For seven years she headed Iran’s delegation to the UN general assembly and also served on several UN committees, including the preparatory committee for the International Women Year’s Conference in Mexico in 1975.
The Princess’s high profile made her a controversial figure and the subject of many rumours about her financial and romantic affairs. Having been forced by her father at the age of seventeen to marry Ali Qavam, to whom she claimed to have taken an instant dislike, she divorced him after her father’s abdication. They had one son, Shahram. Her second husband was the Egyptian businessman Ahmad Shafiq, with whom she had a son, Shahriar, and a daughter, Azadeh. The marriage was dissolved in 1960, and Princess Ashraf married Mehdi Bushehri. The Princess and her third husband would eventually lead separate lives but it seems they never formally divorced.
In 1977, Princess Ashraf survived an assassination attempt, but the following year the Shah advised her to leave Iran. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Princess Ashraf was included in the Khomeini regime’s death list and her son Shahriar was assassinated while carrying groceries into his sister’s apartment in Paris in December 1979. Her only daughter died from leukemia in 2001.
Princess Ashraf eventually faded from public view, but always remained fiercely protective of her twin brother’s regime and an apologist for its crimes.
A longer obituary by my hand will appear in the March issue of Majesty, which will be on sale in a month.