Iranian Shah's Son on Protests: 'People Chant, 'Death to the Dictator.' This Is About Much More Than Economic Issues'

Reza Pahlavi, who spoke with Haaretz this week in Washington, is a one-man opposition machine in exile. 'Im in exile outside my country for four decades now and Ive never been more optimistic'

Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of Iran's last shah before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Washington, January 9, 2018.
Susan Walsh/AP

WASHINGTON - In June of this year, Reza Pahlavi, eldest son of the late, deposed Shah of Iran, will mark 40 years since the last time he set foot in his native country. In the summer of 1978 he was a high school student about to visit the United States. He had very few doubts about what his future held: As Crown Prince of the Iranian royal family, he was supposed to finish his training as a combat pilot in the Iranian Air Force, go up the ranks and some day, when the time came, inherit his fathers throne.

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History, of course, had other plans for him. The Islamic Revolution that took place in Iran in 1979 caused the royal family to seek refuge abroad. Prince Rezas stay in the United States, which was supposed to last a year, turned into decades. His father was denounced by the countrys new rulers, the Islamists, who declared that any member of the family returned to Iran would stand trial.

A photo taken on October 17, 1971 shows the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Persepolis.
-/AFP

Im in exile outside of my country for four decades now, Pahlavi told Haaretz this week in Washington, and Ive never been more optimistic. The recent wave of demonstrations, which has brought hundreds of thousands of young people into the streets, seem to him a moment of truth for change in Iran.

There is a new young generation, he says, they do their own research, they have access to information, they have lived for so many years under tyranny and oppression, and they wont take it anymore.

Pahlavi says the current outbreak of protests is different from previous ones because this time, people no longer have any illusions that solutions to their problems can be achieved through the regime. In the past, people put their trust in reforms and in so-called moderate candidates, he says. And it always backfired. Young people feel they have no hope for freedom, for economic progress and employment. They say, why should we continue with this system? People say, Death to the dictator. This is about much more than economic issues.

Iranian students attend a protest inside Tehran University while anti-riot Iranian police prevent them to join other protesters, in Tehran, Iran, December 30, 2017.
AP

Pahlavi is acting in exile as a one-man opposition machine. He has popular accounts on social media platforms, and is frequently interviewed in Farsi, English and other languages. In some of the videos emerging from the demonstrations, protesters have been heard shouting the names of his father and grandfather, which stirred emotions in him, he says.

Pahlavi was in Washington this week to encourage members of Congress to act in support of the demonstrations. The international support component is very important to this struggle, he says. The people are in the streets, unarmed and defenseless against a regime that is throwing thousands to jail. The international community can send a very strong message to the Iranian people and to the regime, simply by stating: We stand with these protesters. We are with them in their demand for liberty. Their voices should be heard. Its a moral duty for democratic countries to say that.

At the same time, Pahlavi also hopes that the Trump administration will reverse its decision to include Iranian citizens in the travel ban that made it illegal for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries to enter the United States. He says the decision makes no sense, because it targets and punishes Iranian citizens instead of the regime and the forces working for it. They should reconsider it in light of the protests, he says, adding that it would be sad if protesters seeking refuge from the regimes persecution were denied entry to the United States.

In his public appearances, Pahlavi emphasizes that he is fighting for the establishment of democratic rule in Iran that will honor human and civil rights, and adhere to the rule of law. The Iranian regime has attacked him for presenting himself as a fighter for democracy, as his familys rule in Iran didnt remotely adhere to the standards he is calling for today.

My focus is on the future of Iran, not the past, he says in reply to those accusations. Theres a learning curve in nations histories, and I believe we have to learn from the past and improve. I myself am a critic of some of the practices that were used in the past. I believe we need to work for a better future for Iran – we need to create strong safeguards for democracy. Diversity, political competition, free and independent media, freedom of association, a strong and independent judiciary – these are all things that exist in stable democracies, and we can build it in Iran.

Pahlavi grew up at a time when the country, under his fathers leadership, enjoyed close ties with Israel. He says he remembers conversations with his father about foreign policy. His philosophy was to have good relations with as many countries in the region as we could, including Israel. He also encouraged Anwar Sadat of Egypt when he sought peace with the Israelis. Israels relations with Iran, he says, will improve once the Islamic regime loses power.

He highlights water as a possible focus of cooperation between Iran and Israel in the future. Iran is facing a water crisis, which is a vital concern for us, he says, noting that some experts believe the country will face sever water shortages within two decades. Israel has the best experts and technology in this field. Maybe instead of pointing missiles at each other, someday well be able to help each other.

A demonstrator waves the flag of the former Imperial State of Iran outside the Iranian Embassy in Rome, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018.
Gregorio Borgia/AP