Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Iranian Prince: 'My Moment Will Come'

The heir to the throne of the deposed Shah of Iran says he is willing to die for his country and is ready to return and "play a prominent role" in Iranian affairs.

"My moment for the return to my country will come, I assure you," Reza Pahlavi, the eldest son of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, told The Media Line in an exclusive interview from his home in Washington, DC. "I want to be in my homeland. I have been forced into a scenario of exile," he said. "I believe that any Iranian like myself should have the right to live in his own country and contribute the best that one can as an Iranian to the betterment of our country."

Pahlavi's father died in exile after being ousted during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

To many, the likelihood that the Shah's son could become the next leader of Iran is slim, but in the turmoil following the recent elections, the possible resurrection of the Iranian monarchy is once again being discussed.

"I'm not running for office right now," he continued. "My job is to help my compatriots achieve liberty and get rid of this system... if at that time my fellow compatriots want me to play a prominent role in the political scene, they will have to decide that then."

Over the weekend it was revealed that Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards are hunting for the protesters captured in widely distributed photographs of the demonstrations, and Amnesty International accused the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group, of going into hospitals to arrest activists injured in street protests. The news came days after Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said leaders of the demonstrations may face execution.

Given the recent unrest, the 48-year-old former crown prince said the timing of his return to Iran was a question of tactics, not safety. "I've always said that I'm willing to die for my country," he said. "But the circumstances have to be ripe."

Pahlavi's father, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was installed as Shah in a 1953 CIA-led coup, replacing the country's democratically elected government. U.S. President Barack Obama referred to the episode in his speech to the Muslim world earlier this month. "In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government," Obama said, the first U.S. president to admit the U.S. role in the coup, in a clear overture to Iran.

The Shah ruled for over 25 years and was ousted by Ayatollah Khomenei in the 1979 Islamic revolution, after a year of massive street demonstrations. The crown prince was a teenager taking flight training lessons in Texas at the time.

Many Iranians say they enjoyed more social freedoms under the Shah's rule, such as the freedom for men and women to associate publicly, but poverty, illiteracy, torture and violent suppression of civilian dissent were all widespread.

Supporters of Pahlavi, most of them Iranians in exile, advocate for a democratic parliamentary system with a monarch whose role is to unite Iranian ethnic groups.

"Iran can have a parliamentary democracy, a secular system where there is a clear separation between religion and government," Pahlavi told The Media Line. "This is the moment for Iran. What you see now is 30 years' worth of pent-up frustration that is literally exploding," he said. "Such a regime, no matter how repressive, cannot fight everybody all over the place at the same time, which is why it is important that this broad based resistance keeps going."

Pahlavi said the relative lull in protests over the past few days was not a sign that Iranians had accepted the status quo. "There is a degree of repression that may force a temporary retreat simply to preserve and protect people's lives," he said. "The substance of the demands is not going to die down."

The former crown prince said there were numerous signs that the regime was slowly imploding from within.

"I have spoken to a number of highly-placed, responsible commanders of the security forces and the Revolutionary Guards who, being totally disillusioned, have now said that it's no longer tenable for us to continue serving such a regime that is so blatantly killing our own compatriots," he said.

"Some of these people, they were my age at the time of the revolution," he continued. "They sacrificed their lives in defense of our homeland and for the sake of their citizens. Could they today turn their guns against the children of those they were protecting?"

"I don't believe so, and that's why I'm telling you I have absolute faith that we will succeed, but the question is, how soon and at what cost?" he added.

Pahlavi, whose father was a close U.S. ally, has been increasingly critical of the Obama administration's approach to Iran. "While I applaud the President's strong stance in support for human rights in Iran," he said, "there is also a dilemma in his policy of engagement... I believe it ought to be suspended until there is a stable government that is indeed supported by the Iranian people. If you continue to engage now, not only will it be a slap in the face of Iranians who are in a quest for democracy, but it will also not work."

The former crown prince says Western governments should consider a dual approach. "There has been a monopoly by the regime and its representatives on communication with the outside world," he said. "I've always suggested that there should be a dual track approach, in the spirit of those who want to engage the regime to also engage with the democratic opposition."

"Why do you think most of the slogans written on the streets of Iran are in English?" he asked. "Do they want to talk to each other in the foreign language? That should be a significant signal to the outside world that this is not just an internal debate - we want the outside to show solidarity with us... I always found it a little bit awkward that such a relationship was not created.

The Media Line
Benjamin Joffe-Walt