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In his first years on the throne, the Shah was generally considered a figurehead monarch who cared more for fast cars, fancy living and pretty women than for the tasks of kingship. That impression was reinforced by his failure to deal firmly with Premier Mossadegh during the 1950s, and by his ineffectual early struggles with the landowning "thousand families" who largely controlled his country. In 1950 he attempted unsuccessfully to force them to hand over their land to their peasants; the Shah set an example by deeding 450,000 acres of crown property to the 42,000 farmers who worked the royal farms.
Not until 1963, when he undertook Iran's white revolution (now officially known as the Revolution of the Shah and the People), was he able to break the power of the landlords and smash the vestiges of feudalism that paralyzed the country. The move gave him fresh strength from a new base of support in the middle and lower classes. Confident of his power, the Shah in 1967 finally decreed his coronationafter 26 years on the throne. Rather like Napoleon, he crowned himself with the 10,400-carat ruby and diamond royal crown. For Farah, the first Shahbanou (Imperial Consort) of Iran ever accorded the honor of being crowned, a special diadem was fashioned by Van Cleef & Arpels.
Theoretically at least, Iran is a constitutional monarchy, with a Parliament consisting of the Majlis or lower house and a Senate and Premier. In fact, the Shah is one of the world's few remaining absolute monarchs. He guides all of Iran's essential business and makes the final decisions. Searching for a comparison to the Shah's power, Premier Hoveida considers the most recent parallel to have been the French presidency under Charles de Gaulle. "Parliament does not impede the executive," Hoveida explains, "so we have a more efficient system and there is a dialogue."
To stress the strength of the throne, Iran lays heavy emphasis on kingly privilege. Not only do aides, including the Premier, kiss his hand, but peasants also kiss his feet as a mark of respect. When the Shah stands, everyone in his presence also stands until he sits again. Iranian public works, from the 609-ft.-tall Mohammed Reza Pahlavi dam, Iran's highest, to the Aryamehr steel complex, are named in honor of the Shah or the Shahbanou. "The outside world thinks that we want that sort of thing," said Empress Farah in an interview last week with TIME (see box, page 36). "We don't.
But people want it, and if we don't accede, they think we are not interested." In the most lavish display of opulence in Iranian memory, the Shah three years ago celebrated 2,500 years of Persian empire with a $100 million extravaganza at Persepolis, attended by Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie, nine other Kings and 16 Presidents.