This isn’t paranoia, which famously afflicted his father. Since Ruhollah Khomeini ascended to power in 1979, Iran’s ayatollahs have methodically whacked their opponents. In 1991 goons slashed the throat and wrists of the 76-year-old former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, using knives filched from his own kitchen. One year later a hit squad entered a Greek restaurant in Berlin filled with Kurdish activists, screamed, “You sons of whores,” then sprayed the room with Uzi fire. In both cases, European investigators fingered the Islamic Republic of Iran. At least 80 exiled dissident leaders have been assassinated since 1979.
During the mullah’s first two decades in power, this disappearance of opposition leaders coincided with the disappearance of opposition. Though Iranian exiles in Paris and Los Angeles kept predicting the regime’s imminent demise, inside the country there was not a single significant public demonstration until 1998, when protests broke out after an Iranian World Cup victory over the United States. They were followed in 1999 by student riots over the shutdown of a reformist newspaper. And this year the anti-government protests have grown more frequent and more militant–instead of championing Iran’s reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, in his battles against hard-line clerics, the activists now frequently denounce him as part of the system. Throughout the fall of 2001 student protests flared up in Tehran. After Iranian victories in this year’s World Cup qualifying matches, women tossed off their chadors, and men unveiled the prerevolutionary flag and chanted, “We love America!” To make sure no one missed the point, demonstrators dialed contacts at the CIA and held their cell phones in their air so U.S. intelligence officials could hear the chants. Among them: “Reza Pahlavi is our spiritual leader!”
For years Iran-watchers have dismissed Pahlavi’s pretensions to leadership. “I don’t take him very seriously,” says Bar-Ilan University’s Barry Rubin. You can understand the skepticism: Although his father’s regime still has die-hard supporters, they don’t represent a growing fraction of the Iranian polity; many Iranians remember the shah as repressive and corrupt. But to see Reza Pahlavi as simply a restorationist underestimates his appeal. His is a story of reinvention, the tale of a prince who lost his title, fortune, and the love of his people, and in the process came to appreciate the virtues of democracy. He has bucked the crude monarchism of many of his supporters and serves up frank criticism of his father’s regime. In fact, with Khatami’s support eroding, Pahlavi’s moment may soon arrive. He’s rallying the fractious diaspora opposition and supersaturating Iran with posters and video messages calling for insurgency. Once exiled as the successor to a discredited throne, he has become Iran’s most unlikely, and most important, spokesman for democracy.
In 1974, when Reza Pahlavi was 14 years old, his father, the shah, was diagnosed with lymphoma. As a result, the teenager’s monarchical apprenticeship went into overdrive. The shah sent Reza on state missions to Egypt and England. He even designed his son his own school. But all the while, the shah’s rapid modernization efforts, fueled by profits from rising oil prices, were mingling with blatant corruption to produce a massive cultural backlash. As Fouad Ajami has written, “Overnight, it seemed, villagers were hurled into cities and the balance of the country–moral, physical– ruptured…. The newly urbanized, the half-educated, the bewildered came together to topple the old order in a season of wrath and chaos.”
In 1979 Reza Pahlavi joined his father in exile, beginning five years of nomadism–Morocco, Mexico, Panama, Bahama Islands, Egypt, and back to Morocco. In 1980, three months after his father’s death and on his twentieth birthday, the prince claimed the title of shah. Seated at a marble table in a 400-room palace in suburban Cairo, he declared his “readiness to accept full responsibility as the lawful king of Iran.” But it was a fantasy. The shah’s old henchmen lived off Pahlavi’s allowances and hatched quixotic restoration schemes–for instance, invading the Iranian island of Kish. According to Bob Woodward’s biography of CIA chief William Casey, the spymaster went so far as to propose that the Agency undertake a covert campaign to install Pahlavi. The young Reza was a vehicle for other people’s ambitions. Says Bill Royce, the former head of Voice of America’s Farsi Division, Pahlavi “wasn’t yet his own man.”
But Pahlavi earnestly worked to improve himself. While in Morocco he took correspondence courses in politics from the University of Southern California. He sought out supporters of the revolution–his father’s political adversaries–from the left and the right. One of his closest advisers, a former anti-shah activist named Hormoz Hekmat, told me, “He used to talk and say to me, ‘Invite your leftist friends and have some vodka and talk and eat.’ … Where his father liked to have sycophants, he likes to be with intellectuals. He likes confrontation.”
But conversing with critics wasn’t the only thing that weaned Pahlavi from his father’s autocratic legacy. He also lost his money. In 1980 Pahlavi recruited Ahmad Ali Massoud Ansari, his distant cousin and former high school teacher, to tend his $25 million inheritance. It wasn’t a wise move. Millions were shuffled into the accounts of Ansari’s friends and family. When other advisers questioned Ansari, Pahlavi would reply, “No, I trust him.” One day, in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash, however, Pahlavi decided to answer the charges once and for all. He went to the vaults of a Geneva bank to look over his papers. He searched the safety deposit box for his financial documents but found none. Then the bank’s director asked him to leave, informing the young monarch that Ansari had issued an order forbidding Reza from viewing his own documents. After some investigation, Reza found that his $25 million had been reduced to $27,000. “All the rest was gone,” an adviser, Colonel Ahmad Oveyssi, later told the London Observer. Ansari detailed his exploits in a 1992 kiss-and-tell memoir called Me and the Pahlavis–a book that the Islamic Republic happily permitted to circulate widely.
Pahlavi responded to the humiliation of bankruptcy not with bitterness, but with modesty. Along with his grand estate and motorcades, he abandoned royal titles. His supporters and aides began to refer to him not as “his majesty,” but as “R.P.,” and he discouraged them from bowing in his presence. In fact, he became a full-fledged suburban American man, married with children, an NFL fan. His friend Mahnaz Afkhami told me, “He’s a regular guy. I was in a movie house in Bethesda and ran into him with his wife and a friend. He was wearing a t-shirt. I see him shopping in the Safeway.”
Pahlavi’s politics followed his lifestyle. “He began stressing the message and critique of totalitarianism and the alternative style of a new democratic regime rather than stressing himself as the alternative,” another of his advisers says. He now speaks merely of constitutional monarchy. “Something like Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands,” he says. (Spain’s Juan Carlos II, who guided his country from fascism, is an old family friend and political mentor.) Even then Pahlavi promises that he wouldn’t serve unless the electorate voted for a constitutional monarchy in a national referendum. Says Azar Nafisi, an Iran scholar at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies who is not affiliated with Pahlavi, “If he has a fault, it’s that he’s not always forceful enough.”
Indeed, over the years, Pahlavi has faded in and out of the public eye. During the Iran-Iraq War he muted his antigovernment activities in the name of patriotism. When Khatami took office in 1997, he laid low while the reformists challenged the conservative establishment. “There was not enough room or space for aggressive public activism,” says Afkhami. But as Khatami’s challenge from within the system has stalled in the face of intransigence of conservative mullahs, Pahlavi has grown more vociferous. To counter fears about his family’s authoritarian legacy, he has become aggressively candid, the John McCain of Middle Eastern monarchs. After his speeches to exile groups and college students, he opens up the floor for questions, and remains after the questioning ends to debate all comers one-on-one. He readily acknowledges his father’s flaws. “[E]xcesses have been committed before the revolution…. There was … a lack of political liberty,” he says. And he is trying hard to win over public opinion back home. He spends hours each week on the phone to Iran, sometimes cold-calling potential allies in the clergy and military. He regularly appears on nitv and pars tv, popular Farsi satellite stations run out of Los Angeles and beamed into Iran, urging Iranians to nonviolently take to the streets against the regime. His office in suburban Washington supplies a clandestine network of activists in Iran with posters of his visage and video messages on cd-rom. “Unlike his father,” says Nafisi, “he’s had to prove himself.”
Ideologically, Pahlavi has made his message as broad as possible, focusing on the major point on which most exile opposition groups agree: a new secular constitution. “I don’t care if the referendum on Iran’s future results in a republic or constitutional monarchy,” he says. “It is simply important that believers in secular democracy come together to achieve that goal.” And one reason Pahlavi’s star is on the rise is that secular democracy is increasingly the rallying cry inside Iran as well. In 1997, when the voters elected philosopher Mohammed Khatami, the most liberal candidate the ayatollahs could stomach, the idea of an Islamic democracy–a political system that allowed greater freedom but kept Islam at its core–held great promise. With his talk of “dialogue of civilizations”–a repudiation of Khomeini’s Great-Satan attitude toward the United States–Khatami caught the imagination of the Iranian public and Western journalists. The Washington Post’s John Lancaster called him “Ayatollah Gorbachev,” predicting he would usher in Iranian perestroika.
But now Khatami really is looking like Gorbachev–a reformer, not a revolutionary. Khatami was, after all, trained in the conservative seminaries of Qum. As Fred Halliday noted in these pages (“Mohammed and Mill,” October 5, 1998), his writings on Western philosophy followed praise of John Locke with passages about the hollowness of secularism. Then there’s the fact that he has close allies with long histories of abetting Lebanese Hezbollah, and he has made no bones about “defend[ing] the values of the revolution”–a revolution that many Iranians now view the way Russians viewed the Bolshevik revolution in 1991. And even if Khatami sincerely wanted to overhaul Iran’s strange theocratic-democratic political system, the limits of his power have been made abundantly clear. The ayatollahs have aborted every one of his tentative steps toward perestroika. While Khatami promised to lift the ban on satellite television, the regime has gone door-to-door ripping dishes from roofs and balconies. Despite his pleas for tolerance, according to the Paris-based Reporters without Frontiers, Iran has more journalists in prison than any country in the world. And under Khatami’s watch, dialogue of civilizations hasn’t replaced the excoriation of civilizations. When 4,000 attended a Tehran vigil at the Swiss Embassy for victims of September 11, government-aligned militias broke it up. In November the conservative head of the powerful judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmud Shahrudi, created a committee to confront political officials “if ever they called for starting dialogue with the United States.”
Today there are indications that Khatami’s supporters are growing disillusioned. Even his deputies, like Mohammed Ali Abtahi, warn that “people will lose confidence in the system” without more substantive reforms. During the soccer riots protesters screamed, “Death to the Islamic Republic” and “Death to Khatami.” For the past two months students have gathered for anti-Khatami rallies in the sports hall at Tehran’s Amir Kabir technical university to chastise Khatami, chanting, “Moderation is a hindrance to reform.” “There’s no opinion polling,” says Michael Rubin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “but the events of the past months are a big deal.”
It is secularism, not liberal Islam, that is now sweeping Iranian society. Instead of turbans, the rage among young Iranians is Major League Baseball hats. Googoosh, a Barbra Streisand-like diva of ’70s Iranian pop, has recently resurfaced as an icon, thanks to satellite broadcasts and smuggled recordings. Men have begun to don the necktie, a once-banned symbol of the shah’s modernizing influence. “They have embraced Pahlavi and indulge nostalgia,” says Bill Samii, editor of Radio Free Europe’s “Iran Report,” “because it’s such a slap in the face of the regime.” Even Western correspondents in Tehran who once swooned for Khatami have begun to note Pahlavi’s increasing strength. As The Wall Street Journal’s Hugh Pope and Peter Waldman put it, he has “emerg[ed] as an important figurehead of the nascent rebellion.” And there’s another sign of Reza Pahlavi’s resurgence: The Iranian government fears him. Pahlavi’s recent statements condemning the regime’s human rights record have evoked apoplectic responses from ayatollahs in the government-run newspaper. The mullahs have even vigorously protested former King Zahir Shah’s return to Afghanistan because, Iran watchers argue, they worry it might set a precedent for Pahlavi. “Of course there are other opposition figures,” says Rubin, “but many people may perceive him as the only credible alternative.”
All of which puts Washington in a tricky position. From America’s point of view, Pahlavi should be a deeply attractive figure. He’s a liberal who, with our help, could challenge a regime in Tehran that sponsors Hezbollah, defends Hamas, and is developing weapons of mass destruction. He calls the United States a “true beacon of freedom”; he has even quietly met with Israeli officials. When I interviewed him, he took my notebook, wrote the words “secular democracy,” and underlined them twice. Yet the risk-adverse diplomats in Foggy Bottom remain entranced by the prospect of détente with the Khatami regime. “We have been in discussions with the Iranians at a variety of levels and in some new ways since September 11,” Colin Powell remarked last month after shaking hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.
It’s not hard to understand Foggy Bottom’s behavior. Pahlavi doesn’t have an army, he’s been outside the country for decades, and even supporting him obliquely might wreck a dialogue with Tehran that could, perhaps, enhance America’s influence in the region. On the other hand, the regime in Tehran looks weaker today than it has in more than 20 years. And symbolically, Pahlavi has become its most potent opponent. Earlier this month I traveled with him to a basement set of the Voice of America’s (VOA) Farsi TV service. He was there for a live broadcast of “Political Roundtable,” hosted by Ahmad Baharloo, an exiled anchor with a Ted Koppel stack of hair. Pahlavi spent an hour fielding calls from Iran. Phoning Baharloo is not like dropping a line to Larry King. It’s an expensive act of resistance that could land you in the prison. (A VOA official estimated that a call to the States costs several hundred dollars.) One of Pahlavi’s aides translated the calls for me in real time. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War announced in a teary voice that he had “nothing in my life.” A dissident cleric from Isfahan claimed, “In my city the electricity is out because they know you’re here. I’m getting you with radio and battery. Please send more of your pictures and statements. Send it to us and we’ll distribute it.” A woman pleaded, “I need to ask you to come as soon as possible. Iran is like gas, ready to blow up. Do something before we blow up.” Pahlavi stared at the camera and reprised his line: “I’ll fight until death.”
FRANKLIN FOER is an associate editor at TNR.