Deposed shah of Iran’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf, dies at 96


Iranian Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, the shah’s twin sister whose glamorous life epitomized the excesses of her brother’s rule before he was deposed, has died after decades in exile. She was 96.

Many in Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution believed that Princess Ashraf served as the true power behind her brother, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and pushed him into taking power in a 1953 coup engineered by the U.S.

Immortalized in her royal prime by an Andy Warhol portrait with bright red lips and raven-black hair, Ashraf’s years out of power resembled a Shakespearean tragedy. Assassins killed her son on a Paris street just after the revolution, and her twin brother died of cancer shortly afterward. A niece died of a drug overdose in London in 2001, and a nephew killed himself in Boston 10 years later.

Still, she always defended her brother’s rule and held onto her royal past. “At night, when I go into my room, that’s when all the thoughts come flooding in,” she told The Associated Press in a 1983 interview in Paris. “I stay up until 5 or 6 in the morning. I read, I watch a cassette, I try not to think. But the memories won’t leave you.”

Reza Pahlavi, a son of the shah, announced his aunt’s death in a Facebook post on Thursday night. Her personal website said she died Thursday, without elaborating.

Robert F. Armao, a longtime adviser to Ashraf in New York, said the princess died in Europe on Thursday, declining to elaborate on the cause of her death. He said there were no immediate plans for a funeral.

In Iran, media reports on her death relied on international reports. State television reported she died in Monte Carlo and described her as being famous for being corrupt, something Armao criticized. “Her highness did an awful lot for her country, whatever her human faults,” he said.

Born Oct. 26, 1919, Ashraf was the daughter of the monarch Reza Shah, who came to power in a 1921 coup engineered by Britain and was forced to abdicate the throne after a 1941 invasion by Britain and Russia. In 1953, America helped orchestrate the coup that overthrew Iran’s popularly elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, over fears he was tilting toward the Soviet Union. That brought Ashraf’s brother to power and set the stage for decades of mistrust between the countries.

But the shah was “a man of indecision,” according to a long-classified CIA account of the coup first published by The New York Times in 2000. To push the coup along, the plotters reached out to “the shah’s dynamic and forceful twin sister,” who already had been in touch with U.S. and British agents, according to the account. After “considerable pressure” by her and a U.S. general, the shah reportedly agreed.

As her brother’s government ruled in opulence and its secret police tortured political activists, Ashraf focused on women’s rights in an appointment to the United Nations. She and her sister, Shams, also were among the first Iranian women to go in public with their hair uncovered, breaking traditional norms in the mostly Shiite country. She also worked on other diplomatic missions for Iran.

She traveled widely and became known for gambling on the French Riviera, with the French press dubbing her “the Black Panther.” She survived a 1977 apparent assassination attempt in Cannes that killed her aide and wounded her chauffeur.

The political opposition during the shah’s era criticized Ashraf over allegations of corruption, as well as her highly publicized love affairs with Iranian actors and public figures.

After her brother’s 1979 overthrow, she shuttled between homes in Paris, New York and Monte Carlo. She published a memoir and remained outspoken immediately after the overthrow. “After the death of my brother, if we had had the $65 billion some people said we had, we would have retaken Iran just like that,” she told the AP in 1983.

Ashraf married and divorced three times and had three children. She gradually faded from public view, though she attended U.S. President Richard Nixon’s funeral in 1994.

She always maintained she regretted nothing.

“I would want to do the same thing. It’s passed, now, only memories. But there were 50 years of grandeur, of glory,” she once said.