Daily Telegraph, London
Thursday 3 June 1999
HIS Imperial Majesty Reza Shah II is eating small Iranian cucumbers
from a fruit bowl to ease his prickly throat. He snaps them in half and
crunches them noisily, ignoring the huge plate of patisserie laid before
him by his London hostess. Neither the cucumbers nor the bad throat are
capable of interrupting the urgent flow of his thoughts.
It is amazing that a man who has spent the first half of his life expecting
to succeed to the Peacock Throne and the second half predicting the imminent
downfall of the ayatollahs who made it impossible, can still command a
sense of urgency. He should long since have joined the ranks of exiled
monarchs who are sailing their yachts or doing nicely in business. Instead,
he is travelling the world with new messages of hope for the Iranian diaspora.
The collapse of Islamic republicanism may seem as distant now as it
did when his late father was dramatically overthrown 20 years ago; as distant
as when Ayatollah Khomeini died a decade later. But Reza Pahlavi, a professional
optimist, finds the "forces of change" gathering momentum and
is prepared to act as a catalyst for them, should he be needed.
Once, he would have said that constitutional monarchy offered the best
hope for Iran, but today he is much more circumspect. Only five years ago,
he was talking of armed struggle as a final option. Today, it is all patience,
evolution. The words "king" and "ruler" never pass
his lips. He refers to his father's reign as "the previous order"
and talks in deliberately modest terms about his role in helping to restore
"If I tried to lift this table all by myself," he says, "I
would have a very difficult time. But if 20 people all gave their little
finger to help, it would probably come off the ground. That's the spirit
I'm trying to introduce. It is not a job for one individual."
Pahlavi is a smooth, hawkish-looking man with heavy eyebrows and a genetically
flat nose; much taller than his father - who was styled "Superior
Presence, Shadow of God on Earth, Light of the Aryans" - and considerably
more aware of the way the wind blows. He will soon be 40, and realism is
beginning to set in as he contemplates yet more years in exile. 35.2
"I am not crazy enough to insist on something that cannot be done,"
he says. "It is all very well dedicating your life to a cause that
is noble and fine, but it also has to be practical. If I cannot be successful
- or at least useful - then I must move on. I owe that to my wife and children."
His wife, Yasmine, a former political student, is the beautiful daughter
of Iranian exiles. They live, far from grandly, with their two young daughters
in a suburb of Washington DC. Whatever Pahlavi's precise fortune when he
went into exile, £16 million of it was apparently squandered by the
boyhood mentor he appointed as his financial adviser - something that he
admits he was not "street-smart" enough to anticipate.
"I was not raised in the middle of bar fights where people stab
you in the back," he explains. "It was a loving, protective environment.
I was suddenly placed on a platform at the age of 20 and had to start performing.
Because I had other obligations, I had to delegate the management of my
finances. The last thing I imagined was that someone I grew up with would
take advantage of me."
He says his mother, former Empress Farah Dibah, the late Shah's widow,
helps him financially and so do his siblings - Farahnaz, Ali Reza and Leila.
Perhaps it was Ahmed Ali Massoud Ansari's heist that has made Pahlavi
aware of where he might be now if he had not tried to hound the Islamic
regime and gone into business instead. He certainly thinks he owes it to
his family to be pragmatic. "When I married, my wife knew exactly
what she was getting into. She knows where we are going. She also knows
that I am capable of saying when it is time to walk away. I am practically
half way through my life and I would like to have something to show for
His new initiative, though not ostensibly political, may provide him
at last with a tangible memorial. The Mihan Foundation ("mihan"
means homeland), which he plans to launch this summer, is intended to act
as a huge information and education network between isolated Iran and what
he calls the "outside world". With its wide use of the Internet,
and focus on linking Iranians inside and outside the country, he sees it
as a mechanism for modernising Iran without getting into a political debate.
His grand plan is to restore Iran's image in the world "not as
a nation identified with terrorism and radicalism, but as a nation that
has been the cradle of civilisation and is still capable of being a sophisticated
society". Whether as the head of a foundation, or as a focus for opposition
groups, he is certain he has a part to play.
But how will he know whether he's being effective? "That is the
$64,000 question. I don't know if there is a clear answer."
One problem, as he sees it, is that "people don't have the normal
expectations of me that they would have of any other Iranian. It is not
fair, but I was born with it. Call it a curse, call it a privilege, I am
by definition held to a much higher standard. For that reason alone, I
have to give it a harder try."
Four million people, some of the brightest and best-educated, have left
Iran since the revolution and Pahlavi hopes to harness their patriotism
through his foundation. Many probably now have no wish to return, but his
own longing to do so is transparent.
"The toughest pill for me to swallow," he says, "is the
thought that I might never see my country again. I think I will see it.
I know that I will die somewhere in my country. But the pain of wanting
to be there, yet not able to be, is the worst thing in the world, worse
than withdrawal symptoms for someone who is on some kind of drug."
He found the hardest question he has had to face about exile was from
his elder daught
er, Noor, now seven. "If Iran matters so much," she said,
"how come we're not there?" "I did not want to make it
sound like a fairy tale with bad guys and good guys," he says. "I
was afraid of painting a picture that would make my children feel bad about
the country. I am sure many Iranian families who were uprooted or forced
to leave the country as a result of the persecution or intolerance of the
current regime have found themselves in the same predicament."
Reza Pahlavi became heir to the Peacock Throne on 31 October, 1960.
His mother was driven to the hospital in Teheran down carpeted streets;
his birth was announced by 121 gunshots and celebrated with an amnesty
for 98 political prisoners and a 20 per cent reduction in Iranian income
"The news travelled to the four corners of the earth," said
his mother later. "There was an explosion of joy in Iran. I felt the
transcendence of the role I was to play as mother of that child who, with
the help of God, was to wear the imperial crown . . ."
He talks about being brought up in a warm family circle but has also
made the grim calculation that he spent a total of only about two months
of his life with his father. "There wasn't much quality time when
we could sit together as a regular family round the dinner table, in privacy."
The crown prince, aged 19, was in Texas, training to be a pilot, when
his father was declared "the blood-sucker of the century" and
forced to flee Iran while portraits of him were burnt in the streets. His
parents were pushed from pillar to post in a search for somewhere to settle.
Many countries refused to take them in.
"By the time I saw my father again, he was in very poor spirits
and bad health. We didn't really have a chance to speak. That made me realise
how important it is to spend more time with my family."
Nevertheless, when he embarks on yet another trip, his eldest daughter
starts to grumble. "I have to try to make some sense of it for her."
Both Noor and her five-year-old sister, Iman, are proficient in three languages:
French, English and Farsi. "We speak Farsi to them at home because
we want to make sure they know their mother tongue."
It troubles him that his new "visibility factor" increases
the danger from "those elements who are out there to take you off
the face of the planet". He has been a marked man since 1979 when
he was condemned by an Islamic court, along with his parents, for "waging
war against Allah". Wherever he goes - even the anonymous London house
of the friend where we meet - there is a bodyguard.
It is clear that, if ever given a chance, Pahlavi would avoid the mould
of his father, whose combination of blinkered autocracy and personal weakness
assured his downfall. Mistakes were made, he concedes, but not as gross
as the ones under a theocracy. "Our country may not have had complete
political freedom," he says, "but we did have social freedoms.
We don't have that now. Our country has gone backwards. Economically, it
is down the tubes."
As for a constitutional monarchy, he distances himself as delicately
as possible while maintaining it is one of the options. "I introduce
myself as someone representing that institution, if the people so choose.
And if they don't, that's fine by me. The day there is the basis for a
national referendum in Iran, the day people can vote freely at the polls,
my mission is ended."
Does he hope for a son to continue the line? "Enough with the male-dominated
society," he says. "I have my heir already. I hope my daughter
wll be Queen of Iran one day - before America gets a woman president."