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Bitter Memories Of The Shah

Though written before the Iranian election, my latest TNR print story helps to explain the psychology of the Khameini clerical regime, particularly when it comes to the legacy of the last Shah, who today lies entombed in, of all places, Cairo. (That's his burial site, which I visited last month, pictured above). My lede:

Before Barack Obama spoke to the Muslim world from Cairo in June, the president did some sightseeing. His first stop was the Sultan Hassan mosque, a 700-year-old marvel of Islamic architecture, where he and a hijab-clad Hillary Clinton gawked at towering arches and intricate carvings. But Obama didn't stop at the mosque next door, known as Al Rifai, which houses a monument that explains much about the politics of the wider Middle East. A few steps past its entrance sits a thick marble slab cordoned off with velvet red rope. The pale green stone bears a coat of arms and an ornate inscription written in Persian: "His Imperial Majesty, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shahanshah of Iran."

This is the tomb of the last Iranian monarch, who fled his country just before Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic revolution and was given asylum by Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat. That was more than an act of humanity; it was an affront to the revolutionary mullahs in Tehran, who had been demanding their deposed leader's extradition. Sadat had been feuding with the mullahs since he had negotiated peace with Israel at Camp David in 1978. At the time, Khomeini had called Sadat a traitor to the Palestinians and to Muslims everywhere, while Sadat, a Sunni Muslim, branded the Shia Khomeini "a lunatic madman ... who has turned Islam into a mockery." Death did nothing to lessen the feud: When Pahlavi died of cancer in July 1980, Sadat granted him a state funeral and buried him at Al Rifai, in a room by the tombs of two former Egyptian kings. And, when a young Egyptian soldier named Khalid Islambouli emptied his machine gun into Sadat a year later, Tehran promptly issued a postage stamp in Islambouli's honor, named a street in Tehran after him, and painted a nearby building with a four-story mural of the glorious martyr (he was captured and executed).

The Cairo tomb and the Tehran avenue go a long way to illustrate the bitter relationship between Egypt and Iran--a relationship that has only degenerated further in recent months.

--Michael Crowley