The Late Shah's Son Wants a Democratic Revolution in Iran

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In another era, Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last shah of Iran, would be an ideal candidate to lead an Iranian government in exile.

After all, the CIA helped his father retain power in the 1953 coup against the elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. Now, as Iran is reeling, why wouldn't the U.S. get the old band back together?

There are two reasons. President Donald Trump himself says his goal is not to change Iran's regime, but to change its behavior. The other more important reason is that Pahlavi himself is not interested in the gig. 

"My father was king, and I was the crown prince," he told me in an interview this month. "I have always said to my compatriots: It's not the form that matters, it's the content; I believe Iran must be a secular, parliamentary democracy. The final form has to be decided by the people."

In the 1980s, Pahlavi as a young man had a relationship with the CIA, according to reporting at the time from the Washington Post's Bob Woodward. But even then, the Reagan administration was not trying to change the new regime in Iran; it was trying to negotiate with it. As the Iran-Contra affair showed, Reagan's advisers were selling the mullahs Israeli weapons to free hostages in Lebanon.

Pahlavi himself for more than 20 years has consistently said he is not seeking the throne. Today he takes no money from any foreign governments. Instead, Pahlavi sees himself as someone who can bring attention in the free world to the struggle for freedom in his native land.

"I am not running for office," he said. "I have no personal ambitions other than to help the liberation of the Iranian people from the mullahs. If they say we need you to stick around, maybe in this role or that role, maybe. But that is not up to me."  

Pahlavi's father was widely despised by the time he was toppled in 1979. Had the Islamic revolution failed in 1979, Pahlavi would have been the heir to that kingdom. Instead he has spent the last 40 years living in America. He first came to train as an Air Force pilot in 1978, at the age of 17. He studied briefly at Williams College after the revolution. And while he still considers himself an Iranian patriot, he believes his homeland should emulate the open society of his adopted land.

"I am the kind of person that looks at the glass as half full," he said. "Imagine if I was ushered in as the crown prince. I don't think I would have had 1 percent of the experience and knowledge of living in a free society and a democratic country has given me." He said his experience of living in America is the best gift he can give to Iranians organizing today for a transition out of their tyranny.

This has led Pahlavi to lead an interesting life. For example, he was a friend of the late Gene Sharp, the great theorist of nonviolent social change and founder of the Albert Einstein Institute. Pahlavi said Sharp's ideas for how to organize a nonviolent revolution have influenced his own thinking on what to do now to assist Iran's democracy movement.

The influence becomes apparent in the conversation. For example, Pahlavi says a major component of his strategy is "the reintegration of the majority of the non-corrupt, non-criminal members of the existing paramilitary forces." This follows Sharp's own teachings on people-power movements. He stressed the importance of making it safe for members of the dictator's police and security services to join the revolution. "They need to know they will not be victims of regime change. Some of the top leaders will have to answer, but most of the people should not pay a penalty," Pahlavi said. 

Pahlavi also says he wants to build a bridge between Iran's democratic activists and their counterparts in the West. "It's about time for Western democracies to engage in open, transparent dialogue with the democratic opposition," he said.

But Pahlavi also says this is a process that must be driven by Iranians themselves. He said he opposes any American military intervention in Iran. He also says it's a pipe dream for the U.S. to support the People's Mujahedin or MEK, an opposition group once allied with the 1979 revolution until it was purged in the 1980s by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"I have spoken to former MEK members," Pahlavi said. "They force women to wear the Hijab." He added that most Iranians still despise the MEK for siding with Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. "I cannot imagine Iranians ever forgiving their behavior at that time," he said "If the choice is between this regime and the MEK, they will mostly likely say the mullahs."

Many have said the same thing about the Pahlavi dynasty. His father's regime tortured dissidents, suppressed the press and wallowed in corruption.

Nonetheless, there is now some nostalgia for the days of the shah. When construction workers earlier this year accidentally discovered the mummified corpse of Pahlavi's grandfather, Iranian social media lit up with excitement. It caused a minor stir in Iran, after the regime refused to say whether they would lay the former leader to rest in a proper burial.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a retired CIA officer who worked the Iran file, told me there has always been a constituency inside Iran that remembers the Shah fondly. He said he once met an Iranian dissident in Turkey in the 1980s who proved her devotion to the Pahlavis by showing him that she had taped a photo of the crown prince to her chest, under her chador. "The nostalgia for the Pahlavis has been there for some time, and I think it's rising," Gerecht said. "I don't think it represents any effort to restore the monarchy though."

In this respect, Pahlavi has something to offer his people as a patriot — not as a Shah in waiting. Today he told me he is primarily focused on reaching out to Iranians living outside the country to help solve the coming shortage of drinking water. He wants to convene a network of talented emigres to develop policies to address the many problems — ranging from the currency crisis to the desertification of the country — that have been allowed to fester under the current regime.

That shows maturity and wisdom. Pahlavi does not present himself as the savior of Iran. He does not seek to restore the dynasty that was snatched from him in the 1979 revolution. No, the son of the late shah seeks a new revolution in Iran to emulate the democratic nation that has become his home away from home.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.