Mummified body found in Iran could be of ex-ruler Reza Shah

Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Iran correspondent
Reza Shah (right), founder of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, died in exile in 1944. Photograph: AP

A mummified body found near a Tehran shrine could be of the early 20th-century Iranian monarch Reza Shah, a polarising figure whose reappearance would be problematic for the country’s present Islamic leaders.

Local media have published conflicting reports about this week’s discovery at Shah Abdol-Azim shrine, close to a former royal mausoleum south of the capital where the shah had been buried.

Conservative news agencies sympathetic to the Iranian leadership rejected suggestions that the remains were of the former ruler, but many believe the denials may be linked to fears of royalist nostalgia taking hold at a time when the Islamic Republic is struggling to defend its achievements since the revolution.

The mausoleum was destroyed after the 1979 revolution, which deposed the Pahlavi dynasty, when an extremist cleric led a group who climbed its tower and destroyed it in a rampage using pneumatic drills. The cleric, Sadegh Khalkhali, later known as the “hanging judge” due to his infamous summary executions, expressed regret in his memoir that he was unable to find Reza Shah’s body.

It is still not clear if the mummified body belongs to Reza Shah, but the location of the discovery and the resemblance between an image of the mummy and a photograph of Reza Shah before his burial have given credence to the claim.

Chants in support of Reza Shah, not heard for decades, featured strongly in weeks of unrest across Iran this year, demonstrating the extent of public discontent about the state of the country under the ayatollahs.

“Reza Shah, bless your soul,” people chanted during protests over economic grievances that took on a political dimension as they spread to as many as 80 cities.

Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, said the shah’s reappearance would be “a nightmare” for the Iranian regime because “it is testament to the fact that history is not written by authoritarians equipped with force, hypocrisy, shovels and bulldozers”.

Reza Shah was a force for modernisation despite his despotic rule. Construction of railways and institutionalising educational systems were some of his achievements, while his controversial decree banning all Islamic veils, which was forcibly implemented, antagonised him in the Muslim-majority nation.

He died in South Africa in 1944 in exile following the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran during the second world war. His body was sent to Egypt, where it was mummified, before being taken to Tehran and laid at the now demolished mausoleum.

His son, Mohammad Reza Shah, succeeded him in 1941 and held the Peacock throne until he went into exile in 1979.

Reza Shah’s grandson, Reza Pahlavi, tweeted that he was closely following the news about the discovery. His tweet also put an end to rumours after the revolution that Reza Shah’s body had been transferred abroad at the time of the revolution.

“We are investigating the matter and we expect to get clarity on the issue in the coming days,” he said in his tweet. “I warn officials [in Iran] against any secrecy and lack of transparency in their handling of the matter.”

It is not clear what has happened to the mummy after its discovery, as some reported it has been reburied. A selfie that merged online was explained on the Roozarooz news website as having been taken by the driver of an excavator truck.

Hassan Khalilabadi, the head of cultural heritage and tourism committee at Tehran’s city council, told the state-run Irna news agency on Monday that work on the site had stopped after the discovery of the mummified body.

“The body was found during excavations and construction work at the western site of the Shah Abdol-Azim shrine ... because of the discovery these works have currently been halted,” he said.