Once the absolute monarch of Iran, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, 60, is now an international pariah, widely vilified and gravely ill. In the year since he fled his homeland, the Shah and his family have found exile in six countries and are now reportedly searching for a seventh. Last month the Shah and his wife, Farah, the Shahbanou, celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in their present home, a villa on the island of Contadora off Panama. Their four children joined them for the Christmas holidays. But the occasion was hardly festive. In an extensive interview with correspondent Jean Desaunois—their first since leaving Iran—the Shah and Shahbanou discussed the state of his health, their concern for the American hostages, the days leading up to their departure and the accusations of torture and despotism which helped to drive them out.

Don't you find your new island home beautiful?

Shahbanou: Contadora may seem to be a dreamland, but what is important is how one feels inside oneself. If one feels happy, one may be happy anywhere; unfortunately, the sunlight and landscape mean nothing. With all the tension, there are days when I don't even look at the sea. I even find it hard to smile, and yet I must sometimes, if only to protect the children from more traumatic experiences.

You have both been sentenced to death by the head of Tehran's revolutionary court. Do you worry about assassination attempts?

Shahbanou: Truly, no. It is impossible to live in a constant state of anxiety. When the day comes for me to die, for my husband to die, we shall die—and really, that's exactly how I see it. I am more concerned for the children because they are, after all, quite impressed by security questions. Someone has stated that if the King were to disappear the person who is now running Iran would no longer have a reason for existing. This is my opinion too. I think they still need us.

Are you depressed by the grim prognosis of your cancer?

Shah: I've always been a mystic, submitting to the will of God. For me, the problem doesn't exist. I am concerned with one thing only—the future of my unfortunate country and that of my family. My youngest daughter, Leila, is not yet 10 years old. As for myself, however, this threat is of no importance: I am ready.

What has been the worst time for you?

Shahbanou: The most trying period for us was when we were on another sunlit island—Paradise Island in the Bahamas. For us, this was truly hell, the internal hell of thinking of the hundreds of summary executions of people whose main crime was that of having served us. My last months in Tehran were also agony. Everything collapsed. I watched all my hopes vanish. Physically and morally, I could no longer resist, and I sometimes wonder how I was able to survive that period. My only comfort was found in Islam. I keep the faith and I am patient.

When did you learn that the Shah was seriously ill?

Shahbanou: The King has been seriously ill since 1974, but I only found out three years later. He has Waldenström's disease [an extremely rare form of leukemia]. His personal physician had told me that the King was not really feeling very well, but since he appeared to be in good health, I wasn't worried. Later, on November 12, 1977, the doctors informed me—naturally, with great tact and delicacy—of the serious nature of his illness. This was terrible news for me, but they presented it to me in such a way as to leave me with hope. The King did not know exactly what his ailment was. This was a terrible period.

Did the illness worsen after you left Iran?

Shahbanou: Until our arrival in Morocco, the disease had not yet left external traces. The Shah had been following chemotherapy treatment in Tehran, taking a great number of pills each day. He also had a swollen spleen. But it' was in Rabat that he began to have the first pains in his neck, and then a tumor appeared there. We left for the Bahamas, where it was decided to increase chemotherapy by adding intravenous injections. This causes the hair to fall out and that worried me a great deal. The disease had been kept secret and I was afraid that these visible signs might reveal its true nature. Following the advice of his doctors, the Shah was obliged to wear—whenever he could—a tight band around his head, creating a difference in blood pressure in the scalp and thus preventing medicines from penetrating.

The Shah's health seemed to take a dramatic turn for the worse after you left the Bahamas for Mexico last June.

Shahbanou: In Mexico, a whole series of ailments prevented further treatment: malaria, amoebic parasites, then liver problems which were first treated as viral hepatitis. The Shah had turned yellow and suffered terribly from abdominal pains. The difficulty lay in the fact that we did not want to tell the specialist in tropical diseases that his patient had cancer.

Were you eager to go to the United States for treatment?

Shah: Personally, I had no intention of leaving Mexico. I wanted to be treated there, but the doctors insisted. My family begged me to go to a medical center where I could reap the benefits of the latest technical achievements. It was only following an initial examination at Cornell Medical Center in New York that it was discovered that, in addition to the blood disease, I was suffering from a gallbladder ailment.

How were your children told that their father was very sick?

Shahbanou: During the years when we knew the nature of the illness, I had asked myself how I was going to inform the children without making it a traumatic experience. It was decided that their father should tell them. Unfortunately, events intervened. As soon as we arrived in New York, official reports on his health were issued and I knew that they would be made public very quickly by television and radio. I was very, very anxious about the shock that the children would experience on learning the sad truth. After three years of reflection, I then had only a quarter of an hour to explain it to them.

What were your thoughts when you heard Iranians outside the hospital in New York praying for the Shah's death?

Shahbanou: The King was too weak to react, but for me the situation was both painful and unbelievable. I had been present in the operating room and yet I heard lies repeated by the radio: that the King was not ill. All the while, I could see him lying there before me, covered with bile and blood. And to hear that people were praying for the death of a man! I am a Muslim, I am a descendant of the Prophet. For me, Islam is a religion of pardon, of greatness of soul. I told myself that it just wasn't possible. No reasonable person could believe that the King was there because the Americans wanted to help him politically.

How did you feel when American hostages were seized in Tehran by students demanding the Shah's return?

Shah: The hostages were taken two weeks after my arrival in the United States. I believe that the hostage operation resulted from precise preparation within the framework of a planned confrontation with the United States. It would have taken place in any event, under another pretext, had I not required emergency hospitalization.

Shahbanou: In the beginning we thought the hostage situation would be taken care of in one way or another. Now I think of the psychological torture to which the hostages are subjected, with their wrists tied, blindfolded, hearing all those people cry out their hatred for America—that must be hell. I can imagine the hostages' anxiety and wretchedness, especially since they do not know what is going to be done to them or what is being done to free them. I think of the anxiety of their families in the United States. I too have had people very close to me who remained several months in Tehran after we left. I knew they were being hunted, and my anxiety was almost unbearable.

How is the Shah's health now?

Shah: I have lost more than 22 pounds since the beginning of my hospitalization. I have to gain weight before being able to follow my treatment fully.

What do you say to those who believe the Shah should return to Iran in exchange for the hostages?

Shahbanou: There must be principles in the world. If one yields to this kind of blackmail, there will be no end to it, and the world will no longer be able to survive. Even if we are put to death, that will not settle anything. I have the impression that this hatred is being nurtured systematically. For the time being, it centers on the King. Afterwards, what will they invent to perpetuate this fever?

Why do you think your family is so hated in Iran?

Shahbanou: I know that in the hearts of many Iranians, there are feelings of friendship for the King and for me. Even if people were forced to come out into the streets and applaud, when one meets farmers and their wives, one can very well sense what they feel deep inside. I do not believe Iranians to be people of hatred. It is easy for a certain specific person, let us call him the "Spiritual Leader," to spread his own hatred, to bring out all that is hateful and vengeful—I would even say diabolical—in people, instead of inculcating feelings of generosity and greatness of soul. Each human being contains good and evil. Unfortunately, I see that evil has prevailed among my people.

Do you think some outside factor hastened your departure from Iran?

Shah: In January 1979 U.S. Gen. Robert Huyser [then deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe] came to Iran. I had had the opportunity of receiving him several times in Tehran previously, but this time I learned quite by accident that he was there. My generals had not informed me. I thought immediately of a military coup d'état. But was it on my behalf? Against me? In fact, what General Huyser was concerned with was neutralizing the Iranian army. He had met my chief of staff, General Gharabaghi. It appears that the latter used his authority to reduce the leaders of the army to inaction. The fact that so many generals were executed and only General Gharabaghi remains alive makes it difficult to get near the truth. I want to remind you, however, of something General Rabii of the Iranian air force said before his execution: "General Huyser threw the King out of the country."

What do you say about accusations that SAVAK agents imprisoned your political opponents by the tens of thousands?

Shah: Even a clandestine opposition publication gave figures which agreed with my own information: 3,164 people arrested between 1968 and 1977. My figures were 3,200. And most prisoners were terrorists. When they were released, a great number of them began to stir up riots in Tehran, starting the fires that we saw in the capital and elsewhere. Moreover, there are SAVAK in all countries, whether you call them KGB, CIA or Intelligence Service.

What about charges of torture?

Shahbanou: There has been an enormous amount of lies and exaggerations in the press for many years. So the silence which cloaked the summary trials and executions of honest, upright people in Iran at the beginning of this year was for me all the more unbearable. Having said this, there were certain regrettable acts committed by SAVAK of which even we were unaware. Unfortunately, this may be the mentality of our people. It's sad.

Your successors have criticized you for the poverty of the Iranian people.

Shah: Let us not forget one thing. Just before I came to power, little children in Baluchistan ate grass. This cannot be said of my reign. During the last three or four years of my reign, you could see husband and wife riding their motorcycle through the same province where previously it was impossible to take a step without risking being attacked by bandits. They were riding a motorcycle—the same people who, as children, had been eating grass.

Didn't your policies favor the wealthy?

Shah: It was not only the rich who got richer. There were one million immigrant workers in our country, and all workers could buy household appliances and automobiles. No one could pretend that the famous traffic jams in Tehran were caused solely by the automobiles of the upper middle class. There were not that many of them.

Yet you were called a despot.

Shah: Come, all of this talk cannot be taken seriously. It has been alleged that I gave orders, not recommendations, to my ministers. Well, what prevented them from resigning? When I did not pay much attention to matters of state, I was called a playboy. When I began to deal with these matters, I was called dictatorial. One tends to forget, however, that each country has its needs, its philosophy, its way of life. Left-wing dictatorship is regarded with benevolence. No one criticizes it. But if there is a bit of discipline in a monarchy, that's called fascism, or worse.

How did you learn of the assassination in Paris last December of your nephew, Prince Shariar?

Shahbanou: We were in Texas when I received the news by telephone. Someone called me from Paris, saying, "I have bad news for you." During a fraction of a second I thought of many people to whom something might happen. Then I heard the person say, "Shariar has been killed." And really, I could not believe it. I felt all my strength ebb out of me. Shariar was a marvelous fellow, so honest, so upright. His death was a terrible blow for the King, because he loved his nephew very much. For my children, too, because he was one of the few members of the family who was close to the princes. For them, especially for Ali Reza, Shariar was hero.

What are your children doing now?

Shahbanou: All four of them are students in the United States. Reza attends a university in Massachusetts, where he is studying political science and English literature. Farahnaz is enrolled in a boarding school in Connecticut. She is interested in history and Spanish. Ali Reza and Leila are studying in New York, where they live with a member of our family. With the exception of Reza, who is older than the others, they are having great difficulty in adjusting. They speak English, but studying their lessons in English is quite another matter. All four also have an Iranian professor who teaches them Persian, Iranian literature, history and the geography of their country every day.

If you were to leave Contadora, where would you like to go?

Shahbanou: For me, my country was everything. Wherever I may be, it shall never be my true country. But we no longer choose the places where we live. There is, of course, no question of our returning to the United States. We are obliged to accept whatever possibilities are offered. We are only wandering exiles.

Do you believe you may someday return to Iran?

Shahbanou: I don't want to answer that kind of question, so as not to tempt fate. One never knows. One never knows.