Shah-in-waiting? Exiled Iranian royal sees chance to end the Islamic Republic
Reza Pahlavi concentrates intently on the little cellphone in his hand, scrolling through clips of chanting Iranians and explaining why the protests unsettling his homeland are different this time. Even as the latest reports suggest the unrest may be ebbing, the scion of Persia’s 2,500-year-old monarchy believes Iran’s people are writing a new future for themselves, and perhaps for their exiled son.
“We all know that regime change is the ultimate formula,” said Pahlavi, the son of the last shah before the 1979 Islamic Revolution and a harsh critic of the clerical rulers that have dominated Iran ever since. “But that’s what the Iranian people are asking. It’s not going to be because the US says so, or the British say so, or the Saudis say so, or the Israelis say so. It’s because it’s what the Iranian people want.”
More than want, he believes they may succeed.
For Pahlavi, who advocates replacing Tehran’s theocracy with a pluralist, parliamentary democracy, the demonstrations that have rocked cities across Iran the last two weeks aren’t about egg prices, unemployment or economic opportunity. They’re about the nation’s greater grievance with its entire political system.
In an interview, Pahlavi cast the current discontent as more threatening to the Islamic Republic’s survival than the violence that followed disputed elections in 2009 – when Iranians clashed over the direction of a government that would in any scenario be undemocratic and corrupt, and opposed to human rights and the separation of state and religion.
“The time has really come for a massive coalition,” Pahlavi said in Washington, where he says he’s trying to help Iranian activists, human rights advocates, union leaders, journalists and students pull in a broader pool of citizens in defiance of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and the clerics and officials comprising the country’s ruling establishment.
“These are usurpers that have invaded the country, taken us hostage and we shall get our country back. Today is the time,” he declared, describing his part – at least for now – as carrying the flag of the protesters’ cause with Western countries like the United States to intensify their responses and consider new sanctions on Iran’s leaders and their assets.
Iranian officials say they’ve arrested some 3,700 people since December 28. Some protesters have called for the government’s overthrow, and videos show some vocal support for Pahlavi, who left Iran at 17 for military flight school in the United States just before his cancer-stricken father Mohammad Reza Pahlavi abandoned the throne for exile. Revolution meant neither Pahlavi ever returned.
It has been the ubiquity, more so than intensity, of the protests that have surprised many observers. Whereas millions flooded Tehran’s streets after the contested vote last decade that returned hardliner Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to power, the movement this time has been more amorphous and leaderless, but perhaps wider in reach – spreading to more than 80 cities nationwide. In recent days, however, Iranian officials have described the protests as waning.
But Pahlavi may not be the credible voice for change in a country that he hasn’t seen in 38 years. Iranian officials accuse him of exploiting the instability to advance his personal aspirations for power in a part of the world replete with cautionary tales about long-estranged exiles believing they know what’s best for their homelands. And Pahlavi’s father was hardly a paragon of democracy, ruling lavishly and repressively, and benefiting from a CIA-supported 1953 coup of Iran’s prime minster.
While many of the young faces in today’s crowds of protesters couldn’t conceivably have been born when the last shah still ruled, Pahlavi believes the support he is seeing in text messages and Telegram files is genuine.
“It is not a matter of coincidence or, if you will, nostalgia,” said Pahlavi, 57, insisting that a young, scrutinising Iranian generation is expressing “rapport” with his message of inclusion, and rejecting the Islamic Republic’s “brainwashing” and exclusion.
He outlined a vision of how to achieve democratic change: Intensifying “the struggle” until Iran’s government implodes; initiating a transition process; holding popular elections for a constitutional assembly; enshrining secularism and democracy; free and fair voting for a first parliament and government.
But these are broad ideas that would each entail incredibly difficult processes. For example, Pahlavi said that whatever form Iran’s future government takes, it should offer amnesty to military and paramilitary forces such as those in the Revolutionary Guard Corps so they abandon the camp of Khamenei and other hardliners. Such a promise wouldn’t resolve their massive stakes in Iran’s economy, a source of significant popular disgruntlement.
And what of Pahlavi’s path in this new Iran? Does it end with him sitting upon the Peacock Throne? Or does he aspire for something akin to the “Baba” role played by Mohammed Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s deposed king who returned after the fall of the Taliban as a symbolic but powerless figure of national unity?
“I don’t know, to be honest with you. I know what I need to do now,” Pahlavi answered. “I’ve never been preoccupied with my personal role or destiny,” he said, describing fair elections in Iran as his “only mission in life,” replacing the current votes for presidents and parliamentarians among pre-approved candidates.
“Of course, I stand ready to serve my country,” Pahlavi said, non-committally.