When he turned 21, Reza Cyrus Pahlavi publicly declared himself Shahanshah (King of Kings). He became Reza Pahlavi II and formally staked his claim to the Peacock Throne, after the death of his father, the exiled Shah of Iran.
Now, 29 years later, the tall, dark and silver-haired resident of Potomac, Va., on the suburban outskirts of Washington, simply signs himself “Mister.”
His office’s press releases refer to him as “the former Crown Prince of Iran,” but his staff privately persists in referring to him as “His Majesty.”
At 50, Mr. Pahlavi dismisses talk of restoring the monarchy in Iran and says his life is now dedicated to creating a non-violent, democratic revolution there.
“The choice of future government should be left to the Iranian people to decide in a free election,” he says. “What form it ultimately takes is up to them. The essential point to me is that there is no way we can achieve our aspirations as a nation unless we have a secular regime, as opposed to this theocracy.”
“Without a clear separation of the state and religion you cannot have the beginning of any form of democratic system,” he adds.
Mr. Pahlavi was 17 the last time revolution swept over Iran. He was studying to be a fighter pilot at a U.S. Air Force base in Lubbock, Tex., when his father, sick with cancer, fled and surrendered Iran to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic fundamentalist leader.
“Whatever happened in 1979, today people see the net results,” he says. “Where the country was going; where are we now. Whatever analysis is made of Iran — positive, negative, good or bad — it is something for history to decide and for Iranians to draw their conclusions.”
“Are we better off today than we were 30 years ago?” he asks.
“We know the country, its potential, its resources, where it was and where it could have been. We should be at the level of a Taiwan or a South Korea today, not ranked 150th in the world, even though we are an oil-producing country…
“We should not have our Iranian rap artists say the regime is promising us yellow cake when we don’t even have bread to eat.”
His disdain for Iran’s current rulers is evident, but the anger is touched by the pain and longing of separation and the loneliness of 33 years of exile.
“I don’t doubt ever that this regime will end,” he says. “There is no question about that. The question is when and at what cost and how can we help expedite the process to reduce the toll and the cost to our nation.”
In the years immediately after the 1979 revolution, Mr. Pahlavi promoted the case of monarchy and kept his claim to the Peacock Throne alive through books, a website and personal appearances.
Now, he says he promotes nothing more than what he calls the common denominator of Iranian politics: demands for a secular democratic state that observes and protects human rights.
“Every circumstance around the world has its own time in history,” he says, shoving any further discussion of monarchy into the background.
“Those who have been able to move on and adjust to today’s reality will not render the best service to the cause by rekindling issues that are no longer relevant to today’s predicament.”
Iran’s future, he insists, will be determined by a massive generation of young people who have all been born since the 1979 revolution.
Exiles like himself can only offer them assistance and advice in trying to overthrow a repressive theocracy.
“I don’t want anything in return,” he says. “I do it because it is my duty.”
While he urges foreign governments to come to the aid of Iran’s fledgling internal opposition movements, he insists regime change must be internally induced to be legitimate.
He also warns the West not to harm Iranian society while trying to destabilize the Iranian government.
“Sanctions in themselves can not be enough,” he says. “Because if you weaken society, while you weaken the regime, it has less means to really combat [the government]. If [the opposition] is reinforced and reinvigorated, then the whole dynamics of the situation is changed.”
Mr. Pahlavi rejects all talk of outside military intervention or a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear programs. Such moves would alienate potential democratic allies within its government and could jeopardize the lives of thousands of innocent people.
“What I am saying to heads of state and decision-makers around the world is that it would be historically criminal for you not to let the Iranian people stand for themselves and give them their day in court before you adopt much more dire measures,” he says.
“We need to draw lessons from the past,” adds the man who once stood to inherit a kingdom. “We all do.”
“Sometimes people ask me who are the future leaders of Iran,” he says.
“I say I don’t know who they are, but I know that they exist by the thousands. They are the artists and engineers; they are poets and businessmen; they are entrepreneurs and they are there — waiting to inherit this future.
“And it is, by God, our obligation, our duty to the nation, to help them the best way possible to minimize the toll and the cost of change.”