“What shall I call you?” I asked my visitor. “Call me anything,” Reza Pahlavi, son of the last Shah of Iran, answered simply and apparently seriously. Yet, besides the fact that he now lives a seemingly ordinary suburban life, Pahlavi is indeed looking for a more permanent title these days. As we sat talking for an hour and a half, the 41-year-old outlined his views for his still bitterly divided and struggling country.
This son of one of the world’s greatest fallen monarchies sees himself, far from his father’s flamboyant public regality and personal austerity, as a modern Iranian man. He believes he could bring together the fissiparous pieces of the Persian puzzle left over from his father’s fall and exile in 1979, from the following 10 awful years of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s cruel purist Islamic revolutionary reign and, finally, from the hybrid and ineffective regime that rules his strategically placed country today.
Throughout my conversation with the earnest “Young Shah,” as his followers like to call him, ran several modern themes. His would be a “Third Force” in Iran between the democratic facade of the country and the rigid Islamic establishment pulling the strings from the shadows. The future could hold either a constitutional monarchy or a republic. The country is nearing the time for transition; and in fact, this is a moment of “golden opportunity” in which change could come “within a relatively short time, and in fact within the next two years.”
From his early years in exile, taking correspondence courses in Morocco, studying political science in the United States at the University of Southern California and going through fighter-pilot training in Texas, Pahlavi knows the political science jargon of analysis, and he is not bad at it. “We always had sectors that played critical roles in cooperating, or not cooperating, with the present regime,” he began. “These are the clergy, the bazaar merchants and guilds, the tribal elements and various elements of the private sectors.”
Then, in words that could eventually influence the trajectory of Islamic fundamentalism in the world — many think that it must endure the tragedy of being in power in Iran and failing totally — he said that “the most important thing is to understand that, as a result of the regime, the clergy have found themselves at their weakest point in history. There is such a lack of reverence that people have almost turned against religion. What we have to have is a separation of mosque and state, and this is a debate that is now also existing in the theological schools, even in the major one in Qom.”
Today, he would add to those traditional sectors overwhelming numbers of “new intelligentsia,” who are the aspiring and thwarted youth of Persia. “This is very important,” he said. “In my country, 50 million (out of 70 million Iranians) are 30 or younger. They are a pro-democracy movement seeking a secular movement.”
Does Pahlavi have a chance? In the absence of even minimal polling or other analysis in Iran, nobody can effectively judge that — although the popular but ineffective Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has regularly garnered 70 percent of the vote. Reza Pahlavi started a Web site just a little over a year ago; it got 20 million hits in the first year. In spontaneous demonstrations in Tehran after the World Cup finals in October 2001, his name was often shouted by the crowd made up largely of students, a full million of whom are organized into the unions he would expect to support him.
Perhaps the best indicator of his potential lies in the fact that the conservative Shiite Islamic clergy in Iran, which brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power, seems to be terrified of him. The mullahs have strongly spoken out against the return of former Afghan King Zahir Shah’s return to Afghanistan, because they fear it would set an example for their own former shah’s son to return to Iran.
Is a return of the monarchy a realistic possibility in Iran? While Pahlavi hesitates to ponder too much on this, we know from examples that in disintegrating countries, when all else fails, people begin to wish for a return of the old monarchy, and thus the old traditions, albeit in modern dress. This has happened everywhere from Bulgaria to Romania to Afghanistan to Yugoslavia. (Reza Pahlavi’s friend, King Juan Carlos II of Spain, is the best living example of using a respected monarchy to serve as the people’s bridge to democracy.)
Finally, what does he think of President George W. Bush’s inclusion of Iran in a terrorist “axis of evil”? This is one he’s going to be careful on. He simply says that the message “needs to be clarified” because his is a “shrewd nation,” and his people need to know that the message is not against the Persian people themselves.
One of my most revealing stories about his father, the Shah of Iran, came many years ago from a friend who had been at a celebration of the shah’s in the great ruins of Persepolis in the early ’70s. Looking out across the empty desert at a poor, scrawny, lone tribesman on the horizon, one of the shah’s ministers told my friend, “We are going to traumatize that man into modernity.”
Because the shah moved too fast in trying to do that, he traumatized his people into a return to ancient times under Khomeini. But the shah’s son is not like that.
Today, Pahlavi lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and two daughters. Amazingly for all he’s been through, he seems notably well-balanced. The flaws of the father seem not to have been visited upon him. He says he wants his people to be neither “Westernized nor West-toxicated.” He can occasionally be seen wearing a T-shirt and shopping in the local supermarket. And his friends call him “R.P.” Who knows?
by George Anne Geyer