As Reza Pahlavi watched moderate Iranian politician Hassan Rouhani elected to be the next president of his troubled homeland on June 14, he felt wistful for what could have been — and hopeful for what might still be.
As the last crown prince of the former Imperial State of Iran and son of the former Shah, the 52-year-old eldest son in the House of Pahlavi is first in line to the throne under the Persian Constitution of 1906. That means in theory he could become head of a constitutional monarchy if the current Islamic Iranian regime ever crumbles or is overthrown.
Of course, that’s a huge “if” and a possibility Pahlavi downplayed, but did not outright dismiss, in a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat at his stately country home in suburban Maryland. He stressed that his only ambition is to help the Iranian people topple the oppressive clerical regime that has dominated the country since 1979.
“I am just trying to help Iran gain back its freedom and self-determination,” Pahlavi said during an hour-long interview. “I think it is for Iranians to decide who they want as their leaders, who they esteem to be valuable or helpful down the line. If it happens to be me, so be it.”
It probably won’t be, given his baggage. Pahlavi’s father, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, will go down in history not only as a deeply polarizing figure, but as the man whose rule led to the 1979 Revolution that ushered Iran’s hard-line clerics into power.
During his 37-year reign, the Shah was seen as both a modernizing force and a puppet of the West. A secular Muslim, the Shah instituted a number of progressive reforms, granting women suffrage, boosting economic development and becoming the first Muslim head of state to recognize Israel. At the same time, the Iranian aristocrat used profits from his dealings with Western oil firms to consolidate his grip over the country, stifling the opposition while enriching his family.
After years of tensions with the Shiite clergy and his Islamic critics, the Shah was forced to flee the country amid growing political unrest. Despite the controversial circumstances surrounding the Shah’s rule, many Iranians — at least those who also fled after the 1979 Revolution — still fondly recall the era when young couples could kiss in public, Tehran was a cosmopolitan haven of art and culture, and Western investment dollars flowed freely. Others, however, remember growing inequality, the Shah’s lavish spending and his brutal crackdown on opponents.
Nevertheless, Reza Pahlavi remains proudly involved in efforts to foment change in the embattled Middle Eastern nation. In 2011, he founded the Iranian National Council, a Paris-based collective that he said enjoys the support of thousands of reform-minded individuals. He also serves as the group’s spokesman and has been working the international media circuit, sitting for interviews with CNN, London’s Guardian newspaper and other outlets.
“I do have a unique political capital that I think Iranians recognize,” Pahlavi told The Diplomat. “One of my jobs is to keep them focused and keep up their hope…. We have to remain united and put aside our petty differences. This is bigger than one particular group or ideology — it’s about our national struggle for freedom.”
As crown prince of Iran and the oldest of four siblings, Pahlavi left Iran at the age of 17 for air force training in the United States. Unable to return after the revolution, he earned a degree in political science from the University of Southern California. Pahlavi then entered the U.S. Air Force Training Program at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, and earned fighter pilot certification. As the Iran-Iraq War raged, Pahlavi said he volunteered to serve his country as a fighter pilot, but was rejected by the regime.
In the three decades since, Pahlavi has spent most of his time advocating for democracy in his homeland.
“Since the day after the passing of my late father in Cairo, my singular focus, besides my personal family, has been my homeland. The entirety of my time and personal resources have been devoted to working to heal divisions among Iranians, providing humanitarian assistance, and in voicing, to the best of my abilities, the aspirations of my compatriots for secular and democratic governance,” Pahlavi said.
“We must have freedom of elections because I think the only way you can measure the will of a nation is through the sanctity of the ballot box, which is the last measure that can tell any of us what the people really want. Until we are there, anything else is irrelevant as far as I am concerned.”
Iranians do have some measure of freedom in electing their president, although the ultimate arbiter of power in Iran is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who vets all candidates before they can go up for a vote.
Still, Rouhani’s surprisingly decisive victory sparked hopes that changes are afoot. Despite being an establishment insider, the president has already chided Iran’s clerics for interfering in people’s personal lives. And even though Khamenei holds ultimate sway over nuclear talks, Western pundits hope Rouhani will bring the pragmatic streak he once showed as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator back to the table.
Pahlavi is not nearly so optimistic.
“All in all, I would say I find it very difficult for this regime to steer away all of a sudden from the positions it has taken so far — most of it due to Mr. Khamenei himself as the ultimate decision maker, particularly as it pertains to the nuclear issue,” he said. “From day one, I’ve said as long as the people of Iran don’t have their full destiny in their own hands, we cannot say the system is representative of their wishes and desires.
“Let’s not forget, he is one of the pre-approved candidates that have passed the filter of this regime as his predecessors have,” Pahlavi added of the president, who formally takes office Aug. 4. “The way the regime has played this game was to pretty much enable the supreme leader to have the final say.”
To that end, he’s skeptical progress will be made on the nuclear front, suggesting Rouhani is little more than a political puppet. “He said he’d like to see the wheels of centrifuges turn, but he would also like to see the wheels of our economy turn,” Pahlavi said. “How can you translate this? It translates in my view into being very coordinated with the supreme leader. It means they’re not going to give up on anything. It’s no longer a subject of debate. In other words, we’re not going to give up on our rights to enrich [uranium].”
However, Pahlavi said that if Rouhani were to manage to extract some concessions from the supreme leader — such as loosening restrictions on Iranian society — it would be a significant step forward.
“I would love to see a setback by the regime, to see it cave on something, whether it is to domestic or international demand, because the more the regime gives in, the less likely it is to survive,” he said. “Whether it will is a different story.”
Pahlavi, a husband and father of three girls, said he’s not focused on Iran’s nuclear agenda as much as its human rights agenda.
“We’ve always said the nuclear agenda may be important for the world, but it’s not the most important thing for Iranians,” Pahlavi said. “For us, it’s the lack of human rights and lack of freedom that is the core issue, and we believe that a different system — a democratic system — with one stroke of the wand will eliminate every problem this regime has been associated with.”
Perhaps, but Iran didn’t exactly get full democracy when Pahlavi’s father was in charge either. When a democratically elected prime minister briefly nationalized Iran’s oil industry in the 1950s, a U.S.-backed coup overturned the government and returned the Shah to power, along with the foreign companies that gorged on the country’s oil.
But Pahlavi suggested that those who forced his father from power in 1979 didn’t grasp what was in store for them.
“The enemies of the previous regime who fought against my father didn’t even know what this man [Khamenei] would actually represent,” he asserted. “Case in point, most of them who were part of bringing the same regime to power had to flee the country a few months later. Women were immediately dealt with in the most brutal way, becoming second-class citizens instantly as a matter of constitutional law. Since then, people have been stuck with a regime that put them through eight years of war [with Iraq] while the regime entrenched itself and built up its infrastructure of surveillance and the Revolutionary Guard. By the end of the war, they had a very well-entrenched Gestapo-like, mafia-like, KGB-like setup.”
He added: “Since that time people have had to struggle and hope that maybe through reforms they could accomplish something, but it has backfired.”
After the so-called Green Movement of 2009, in which thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran took to the streets to protest the dubious election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, only to see their cause crushed by the Iranian government with very little blowback from the Obama administration, Pahlavi decided to launch the Iranian National Council.
“After the Green Movement when people were being thrown in jail and tortured and what have you, I didn’t want to see another generation sacrificed for nothing,” he said. “The need for some kind of a structure had been talked about before, but nothing had been created. Something needed to be created outside of Iran. Why outside of Iran? Obviously, because no visible structure that would be in open defiance of the regime could reform or even advocate from the inside.
“We needed to create a platform to be a voice for the Iranian people at home,” he said.
The council established a 16-point document declaring its intention to advocate for free and fair elections, basic human rights and democracy in Iran.
“We announced it would be grassroots from the bottom up, not something for elites,” Pahlavi said. “We wanted everybody to participate with as many average Joes as possible. More than 25,000 people signed this document, and 500 people were chosen to represent this council, which was conducted in Paris last April.”
The council’s first official act was sending a letter to Khamenei demanding the immediate, unconditional release of political prisoners and the cancellation of the June 14 election that Pahlavi said was “totally meaningless.” The letter, not surprisingly, went unanswered.
Despite pushing for regime change, Pahlavi stressed that he opposes military intervention in Iran and is skeptical that U.S.-led sanctions have had much of an effect other than hurting his countrymen. In their place, he has advocated for boycotting elections (a plea that apparently fell on deaf ears in Iran as 72 percent of voters cast ballots in June) as well as labor strikes.
“One of our objectives is to try to bring change at the least possible cost to our nation,” Pahlavi explained. “More often than not, the quickest way to paralyze a regime no matter how brutal or oppressive it is, is by slowing down its ability to survive by paralyzing its economic means of survival. Labor strikes and work disruptions are the quickest way to paralyze the system. There are so many different ways to utilize civil disobedience that are not harmful to the people but would certainly hurt the regime.”
The exiled crown prince suggested creating an incentive fund that would help guarantee striking workers some financial compensation if they walked off their jobs in protest. He also suggested that those who think diplomacy, or even coercing Iran with sanctions, will change conditions in a country ruled by Islamic law are naive.
“Can Iran, at the end of the day, coexist with the world as we know it?” Pahlavi asked rhetorically. “Can there be an actual, rational coexistence in the same sphere by a regime that is hell-bent on exporting an ideology and its only obstacles are the values and principles that the free world and particularly the Western world is based on?
“All of the values that the West stands on are the biggest enemy of this regime,” he said. “You are not talking about North Korea. You are dealing with a regime that from the beginning of its inception had no other ambition or goal, which in fact is codified and stipulated in its own constitution — that is the exploitation of an Islamic Shiite ideology worldwide. If they could impose this using the nuclear deterrence as a means to force a fait accompli on everyone … they will do that.
“Otherwise, let’s face it — would this regime take our country to the brink of military attacks and economic collapse just to produce a few kilowatts of nuclear electricity?”
To that end, Pahlavi discounts Iran’s hybrid model of political Islam, especially when it comes to nations such as Egypt, which itself flirted with Islamic democracy only to recently recoil from it.
“The Iranian experimentation with political Islam will serve as a model for our neighbors in the region — to avoid,” Pahlavi said. “Like all political ideologies, political Islam will ultimately be judged by its ability to deliver freedom and opportunity to the people. It has failed miserably — catastrophically — in Iran and sooner or later it will find itself accountable to the people in my homeland and elsewhere.”
Turning to the subject of his father’s legacy, Pahlavi grows more contemplative. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is credited with fostering human rights and championing secular government. But he is also accused of bilking the country for billions of dollars’ worth of oil money and using Iran’s then-intelligence agency, SAVAK, to suppress political dissent and imprison and even torture opponents.
The son concedes the father made mistakes, but insists his good deeds by far outweighed the bad.
“The overall track record of my father and grandfather, it is overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “Which system doesn’t have negatives? The most important thing is to acknowledge where things went wrong and have them not repeated in the future. My father has been rehabilitated in the minds of many. I think he is more popular today 32 years after his death than he was at the height of his popularity in Iran.”
Pahlavi grew philosophical wondering what might have been had his father — and then himself — been in power the past three decades.
“If the Iranian Revolution had not occurred, we would be South Korea, and today we are North Korea, bottom line,” he declared. “If you look at it from that prism, where the Shah was trying to take Iran, we ought to have been there. Now, we look at Dubai next door and look at lost opportunities and say where are we now?”
But, he added, there’s no sense wallowing in regret. “I am inspired daily by the dedication of progressive Iranians to ‘get past the past’ by working with compatriots across a broad political spectrum for a better future.”
Pahlavi is also quick to assert that while he is his father’s son, he is his own man.
“Sure, there were mistakes made,” he conceded. “But I think most people who look at me understand that I have not genetically inherited the circumstances or policies of my predecessor. I am my own man. I have my own vision and I have my own thoughts. I just happen to have the same name,” he told us.
“In the end, I ask people to judge me by deeds and words rather than anybody else’s.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.