Look Who’s Talking Iranian Democracy: Son of the Late Shah

By Marc Perelman

Published May 30, 2003, issue of May 30, 2003.
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Reza Pahlavi does not see any contradiction between being the son of a king and a leading voice for democracy.

On the contrary, said Pahlavi, the 42-year-old exiled son of the late shah of Iran, his name recognition can help fuel the growing tide of opposition to the mullahs who overthrew his father in 1979.

As talks in the administration heat up over whether the United States should assume an aggressive role in pushing for regime change in Tehran, Pahlavi is declining to discuss what his future role should be. Instead, in a telephone interview with the Forward, he stressed that the priority should be to work toward nonviolent change, with the goal of eventually holding a referendum in Iran on the establishment of a secular democratic system.

“I want to act as a catalyst,” said Pahlavi, who lived in Iran until the age of 17, when the Islamic revolution took place. “The priority today is national freedom and the establishment of a secular democracy, well before any ideological preferences.”

Pahlavi would not rule out that such a system could take the form of a constitutional monarchy, if Iranians so decide. But he would only describe himself as “an Iranian patriot and nationalist, a believer in the cause of democracy.”

Pahlavi said that he would “certainly be involved” in the process for establishing a secular democracy and would “see it through, even if it means at the expense of losing my own life.”

While he has the support of most the American-based Iranian opposition groups and claims contacts with a wide array of players inside Iran, Pahlavi’s following there is difficult to assess.

In the summer of 1978, the young Pahlavi left Iran to take an Air Force training course in the United States — he did not know it was for the long haul. Six months after arriving, the Islamic revolution took place; Pahlavi has been in the United States ever since.

Since 1984, he has lived on the East Coast; his home is in Virginia. After his father’s death in 1980, Pahlavi began lobbying for regime change in Tehran.

Pahlavi said that his profile has risen in recent years, not so much because he decided to be more outspoken and hired a lobbyist, but because the Middle East has become the focus of world attention, thus providing him with more exposure. He acknowledged talking with many leaders around the world, but denied previous reports in the Forward that he met with former president Bill Clinton and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu while they were in office, as well as with President Bush, Prime Minister Sharon and Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

As for reports that he is receiving support from Jewish groups, Pahlavi said that they were just some of the many organizations willing to support the message of freedom in Iran.

Critics worry that Pahlavi is merely a pawn in the hands of neoconservative hawks pushing for regime change in Iran through diplomatic pressure and even covert action. Pahlavi shares the hawks’ assessment that the regime in Tehran cannot reform itself and that it only understands “a message of strength” and should not be engaged diplomatically with the United States. However, he seems sensitive to the possibility that too close an association with Washington hawks might lead to the impression that he is simply a replica of Ahmed Chalabi, the once-exiled longtime Iraqi opposition leader admired by neoconservatives, especially given the shah’s record as a strong American ally.

Pahlavi’s father came to power via an American-backed coup in 1953 that that ousted Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohamed Mossadegh. This time, Pahlavi insists, no outside force is needed to bring about a change of government in Tehran. The majority of Iranians, he said, have given up hope that the Iranian theocracy, run by a supreme religious leader with a subservient elected president, can morph into a genuine democracy and are now looking beyond the regime.

The best way to topple the regime, Pahlavi said, was not through military action, but a homegrown civil disobedience campaign, which he claims has already started in the form of election boycotts, strikes and demonstrations.

A crucial moment will come this July, on the fourth anniversary of the student uprising in Tehran. According to Pahlavi, many groups are mobilizing their resources to send a strong message to the international community with demonstrations, strikes and other acts of civil disobedience.

Pahlavi contends that the concept of an Islamic democracy promoted by the mullahs is a contradiction in terms and that the debate raging between reformists, including Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, and conservatives is just for show.

Pahlavi argued that American engagement with Khatami or the clerics would only help to prop up the elements opposing change. He praised the reported decision by the administration to halt American-Iranian contacts following allegations that Iran was harboring Al Qaeda operatives who may have played a role in the recent bombing in Riyadh.

“The regime has done all this on the one hand to buy time domestically and to confuse the world into some kind of appeasement by giving the appearance of a process, which is nothing more than a charade,” Pahlavi said. “The legislative reforms have been going on for the past seven years, nothing has been achieved and people are simply fed up.”

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