In Bitter American Exile, the Shah's Twin Sister, Ashraf, Defends Their Dynasty
05/05/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
In her jet-setting days, she was known in Paris as "La Panthère Noire"—the Black Panther—a woman of sharp tongue and daunting mien. As the twin sister of the Shah of Iran, Ashraf Pahlavi was so relentless a manipulator that her own brother once exiled her from Iran—and so despised in some circles that assassins tried to shoot her near her Riviera home in 1977. Now that the King of Kings has been dethroned, her glory days are over—but she has not suppressed her considerable wrath. Last month Her Imperial Highness the Princess Ashraf published her memoirs, Faces in a Mirror (Prentice-Hall)—and from the comfort of a Park Avenue triplex, far from the horror in Tehran, she has unleashed a vituperative attack against the U.S. government and its Chief Executive. Her thesis is the now familiar refrain of the Pahlavi family and its loyalists: that Jimmy Carter was personally responsible for the downfall of her brother—and, indirectly, for the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. "Carter didn't kill my brother with his own hand," she observes. "But he overthrew him. If Nixon were President, my brother would still be on the throne."
Ashraf's bitterness is tinged with personal sorrow. Her son Shahriar was gunned down at 34 in Paris last December as he plotted to organize an underground movement inside Iran to restore his family to the throne. She keeps his embalmed body in New York against the day when she can bury him in their homeland. "More than my son, he was my partner," she says. "I would probably have gone back once he told me to." As a mother she is especially sympathetic to American hostage families. "I understand their feelings, and I hope to see a happy end to this tragic situation." She advises relatives, buoyed by Barbara Timm's success in seeing her hostage son last week, that "as long as they cooperate with the kidnappers and their propaganda operation, hostage parents will not be in any physical danger; if they don't, it will be another story."
Even in exile, Ashraf, 60, is no typical refugee: She admits to about $10 million in assets, but says that sum is draining away in support of some 50 fellow exiles. Now forswearing couture fashions, she notes, "I'll buy dresses in boutiques, and maybe I'll be obliged to sell my jewels. I sold my house in Paris, but the one on the Riviera will be the last to go. That is my retirement retreat." (Her Tehran home is now the presidential office of Abolhassan BaniSadr.) A sense of serene unreality pervades her everyday life. She has a lady-in-waiting, cook, butler and round-the-clock guards in the Manhattan apartment previously owned by Helena Rubinstein and then Charles Revson.
With the Shah seriously ill—and reportedly gravely depressed—Ashraf may prove the most outspoken fighter in the family. A nonpracticing Muslim, she says: "I don't need to pray. I have God in myself." After promoting her book, the princess plans to travel to Egypt to be near her brother. She phones him daily and was with him much of the time in Panama and during his recent surgery in Cairo. The ex-Shah is clearly the most important man in her life. Though she is legally still married to her third husband, Mehdi Bushehri, now a businessman in Paris, she rarely sees him. "I'd never divorce him—I'm not in love with anyone else," she says of the man she wed in 1960. "It's too late for remarriage. I can't even imagine a man in my bed." She says her greatest love is her grandson, Cyrus, 10, who lives with Ashraf's son Shahram, 39, in Europe. The princess also has a daughter, Azadeh, 28, in Paris.
Predictably, Ashraf still stoutly denies that her family looted Iran's treasury, and even claims that no authorized torture occurred in Iran during the Shah's reign. "The king was above these things," she says. "Even if there was torture, he didn't know." In any case, she says, she approaches life with a clear—if fatalistic—conscience. "I don't care when I die," she says. "When you die, you die. What I don't want is to die in my bed. To be killed in an accident or to be shot is my preferred way to die."