Reza Pahlavi, son of the late shah of Iran, has lived in exile in the United States since 1979. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he reveals how he has aided the recent opposition protests, why he believes Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has lost his legitimacy as supreme leader and his hopes of returning home.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Pahlavi, are you still politically active?
Pahlavi: I have been politically active in opposition to the clerical regime in Iran for the past 29 years. Throughout these years, I have maintained broad-based contact with a variety of Iranian groups
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So you’re in touch with reformers and protesters within Iran?
Pahlavi: Yes, I am. I spend most of my time communicating with people in Iran — not just reformers and protestors, but also with ordinary Iranians who suffer quietly under injustice, social and economic decline. Their concerns are of utmost importance to me.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you directly and personally involved in anything that’s going on in Iran right now? After all, they’re trying to overthrow a regime which toppled your father.
Pahlavi: The movement born on June 12 has generated an unprecedented and broadest support of Iranians of all walks of life. I have done my share to support this movement of the people and to help them voice their cry for freedom.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is the latest news you’re hearing from inside Iran?
Pahlavi: What is new is the clarity with which the most senior religious leaders are speaking out against (Ayatollah Ali)Khamenei. These are the most respected leaders of the faith, not only because of their high religious status, knowledge and rectitude but also because of their independence from government.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you see a split among the clerics in Iran?
Pahlavi: Absolutely. Government clerics who enter the holy city of Ghom and its seminaries backed by money and not-so-hidden coercive powers of the state are a thorn in the side of independent clerics who are more interested in faith and morality than power. In the younger, more popular days of this theocracy the schism was not obvious. Now, with masses of people on the streets, crushed by the orders of the head government cleric, the rift is wide open. The grand ayatollahs can no longer keep quiet about rape and torture in jails in the name of Islam. Unlike government mullahs, these senior clerics get their support from the people, so they can never be far away from popular feelings.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are we experiencing a sea change?
Pahlavi: It’s now plain for the world to see how the supreme leader and his fellow power-hungry, mid-level clerics have been abusing the peoples’ faith to maintain the big lie that they derive their legitimacy from Islam. Gone is the delusion that one man, Mr. Khamenei, can appropriate the powers of state in the name of God. So the supreme leader has lost his theocratic claim to legitimacy just as his favorite president has lost his claim to popular legitimacy. Because many in the armed forces and Revolutionary Guards are followers of religious leaders who question Mr. Khamenei, he cannot even count on presiding over a typical military dictatorship for long.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the regime appears to be prevailing.
Pahlavi: Stalemate is the best way to describe the political state of affairs in Iran.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you make of the roles of former Iranian presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani? Do you think their criticism of the regime will have an effect?
Pahlavi: It is not so much their impact as how they have been impacted by popular dissatisfaction and the criticism of the grand ayatollahs senior to them in religious hierarchy. But I am happy that they realize that today you either stand with the people or with Mr. Khamenei, and they are moving in the right direction.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could they do more?
Pahlavi: I hope they will move faster and farther from their trademark ambiguity and say clearly what is wrong. This is not about Mr. Khamenei’s decisions — it’s about a whole system in which one man selects six others directly and another six indirectly, and those 12 can decide who can be a candidate for president or parliament and who cannot. The same man also picks the heads of the armed forces, the judiciary, state radio and television as well as so many other positions of power.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What roles are the Internet and the international media playing in this crisis?
Pahlavi: The regime’s ban on coverage by international media, its treatment of reporters and draconian restrictions on their activities and maligning them as agents of imperialism is actually testimony to the effectiveness of these media.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think the media retreated too quickly? Would you like to see journalists do more?
Pahlavi: First and foremost, they must expose human rights abuses in Iran. Second, by providing information, international media can give hope to a people whose rulers are trying desperately to keep them in the dark. You can help lift the black veil of censorship.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have denied allegations that you have contacts with the CIA. Still, are you in touch with the US government in general?
Pahlavi: Part of my duty is to brief, whenever necessary, policy and decision-makers the world over. As such, I use various opportunities to inform such individuals and discuss Iranian matters with them.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You live in Maryland, but you still say it’s a temporary situation. Where do you consider home?
Pahlavi: Anywhere in Iran. That is my true and only home.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have greater hope today of someday returning to Iran than you did in the past?
Pahlavi: I always did! For me, it has never been a question of if, but rather when will I be able to return home.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In which capacity would you like to return — in a political one or as a private person?
Pahlavi: Once Iran is liberated, and my fellow compatriots are free to elect their leaders and decide on their democratic political system of choice, my foreseeable mission will be accomplished. From that day on, my role will be determined by my compatriots. I will thus serve them in whatever capacity they see fit.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think Mir Hossein Mousavi would be any better or different than Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad?
Pahlavi: Mr. Ahmadinejad cheats, lies, steals and stuffs the ballot box. Unafraid of the threats of the supreme leader to shut up and accept fraud, Mr. Mousavi shows the courage to reclaim the ballot box for a fair and impartial recount. Of course there is a huge difference between the two. But you must understand his delicate position. Right now, in order to ensure the survival of the popular struggle, he cannot just say or do whatever he wants.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Should Iran be allowed to have its own nuclear program?
Pahlavi: Let me remind you that Iran was not denied the right to have a civilian nuclear program before the clerical regime’s appearance. In fact, the very same countries who are today imposing sanctions on Iran were competing with each other in selling our country nuclear technology and reactors. Actually, no foreign government has actually said that Iran does not have the sovereign right to the technology and peaceful civilian use of it. The problem lies with the nature of the regime and its dubious intentions. The world has good reason to distrust a regime that has sponsored terrorism abroad while repressing its own society for years. Troubling statements emanating from some key individuals in leadership positions have added more fuel to the fire. My position is simple: As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has the sovereign right to develop its own civilian nuclear program. But future democratic governments will have to examine the scope and feasibility of such programs in the context of our energy needs, while ensuring the full trust of the international community.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think history has judged your father and his rule unfairly?
Pahlavi: History has yet to fully render its verdict on that period. For one thing, absence of public debate has made it impossible to gauge public sentiments and opinions on the matter. What I can tell you is that many Iranians, including the young generation who has never lived in that era, have a different account than what the regime, with its venomous propaganda, has attempted to fill their heads with.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But it’s not just propaganda that has formed the ideas about your father.
Pahlavi: With the organizational and financial resources of an oil-rich revolutionary state devoted to the vilification of my father, I do not think any fair person can say that his friends and enemies have had equal access to the court of public opinion or pages of history. I do not expect a fair judgment until both sides have an equal say.
Interview conducted by Marc Pitzke.