Exiled Iranian royal sees chance to end the Islamic Republic

Reza Pahlavi advocates replacing Tehran’s theocracy with a pluralist, parliamentary democracy

Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of Iran's last shah before the 1979 Islamic Revolution and a critic of the country's clerical leaders, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last Shah of Iran and the scion of Persia's 2,500-year-old monarchy, believes his country's people are writing a new future for themselves, and perhaps for himself. With the country on edge after 10 days of protests that have seen tens of protesters killed and up to 3,700 people arrested, the 57-year-old former crown prince genuinely believes that his homeland can overthrow the regime installed by the 1979 Islamic revolution.

“We all know that regime change is the ultimate formula,” said Mr Pahlavi, a harsh critic of the clerical rulers who have dominated Iran over the last four decades. “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.”

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 are not about egg prices, unemployment or economic opportunity. They are about the nation’s greater grievance with its entire political system.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Mr 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,” Mr Pahlavi told the AP in Washington, where he says he is 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.

Some protesters have called for the government's overthrow, and videos show some vocal support for Mr 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 Ahmadinejad 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.

Mr Pahlavi is staying abreast of developments in Iran through what his aides describe as a vast network of contacts, inside and outside of the government, that he has maintained for decades. An equally important source has been normal Iranians reaching out to him directly via social media.

But he may not be the credible voice for change in a country that he has not 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 Mr 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 could not conceivably have been born when the last shah still ruled, Mr 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,” he said, 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, Mr 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 Mr Khamenei and other hardliners. Such a promise would not resolve their massive stakes in Iran’s economy, a source of significant popular disgruntlement.

About where he sees himself in the future, Mr Pahlavi said: “I don’t know, to be honest with you. I know what I need to do now.”

"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, noncommittally. “I have no idea in what capacity it may or may not be. I may end up just being a regular citizen living the rest of my days, or I may be called upon to play a bigger role.”

“Everybody knows that I carry the monarchic heritage. If the country is more ready for a republic, even better. That’s great.”