Royalty in Exile Mideast
The son of the shah of Iran uses the Internet, radio and TV to urge
fellow expatriates to push for a new government in their homeland. But
whether he is 'majesty' or 'citizen,' unity is elusive.
By SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON
Los Angeles Times
February 6, 2001
Loyal followers address him as Alahazrat, or "majesty." Other
expatriates simply call him "mister." Reza Pahlavi, son of the
late shah of Iran, is a little of both. As a boy he was once adorned in
medals and uniforms but now he appears in dark suits and ties, casting
himself as an ordinary citizen seeking to unite Iranian opposition groups
He has never gone into the strict seclusion of so many deposed royals,
but recently he has gone public as never before, even addressing his homeland
last month in what aides said was an unprecedented television broadcast.
As part of his mission, the man who crowned himself Shah Reza II in absentia
20 years ago spent the weekend in Beverly Hills wooing the splintered factions
to join dissenters back in Iran seeking to overthrow the Islamic regime
that deposed his father in 1979.
His mission is not about the past or what mistakes his father made,
Pahlavi said in a Monday interview. It's about being a sharvand, or citizen,
and helping young Iranians who have sparked dissent in Iran to achieve
the population's longtime desire for self-rule, first put in writing in
1906 by its first Majlis, or parliament.
"That desire is still there, especially in today's world,"
he said. "I'm very confident what I'm talking about is not an illusion
The 40-year-old royal, who like other expatriates of his generation
seems as American as he does Iranian, said his ultimate goal is to see
a referendum called in his homeland so citizens can decide what form of
government they want.
Using the Internet, radio and newly established satellite television
networks, Iranian expatriates should put aside their differences, he said,
and support the effort of Iranians at home, who ultimately must make the
choice for the country's future.
If they vote for a secular democracy, Pahlavi says he will renounce
the throne, conquered 75 years ago by the grandfather he is named after.
Known as 'Citizen Pahlavi'
And so he came to Los Angeles, to meet with a handpicked collection
of supporters and opponents who are among the hundreds of thousands of
Iranians--the exact number is unclear--believed to be living in Southern
California. The community is considered influential in Iranian expatriate
circles, and if he is to sustain support elsewhere, he must secure it here.
Some observers are optimistic about his chances and approve his non-royalist
approach. He can carry himself with royal bearing but also play a less
imposing role as a soft-spoken man with perfect English and gentle manner.
Pahlavi," as The Iranian, an online expatriate magazine,
recently dubbed Reza Pahlavi, may have picked the right moment to launch
his campaign of "Today Only Unity," proponents say. They add
that the Iranian economy is a shambles and President Mohammad Khatami and
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are jostling for control of Iran and its 67
"He is the only symbol who can grab this flag and carry it,"
said Habib Rowshanzadeh of Newport Beach, an Iranian TV newscaster.
But Pahlavi's opponents call him a relic who doesn't stand a chance
of ruling Iran as a constitutional monarch or with any other title. Many
roll their eyes when asked about what role he can play against the theocracy
that drove him and millions of Iranians to leave their country.
"We younger dissidents already get along," said Roozbeh Farahanipour,
a formerly jailed leader of the 1999 student protests in Iran who dined
with Pahlavi here Saturday. "He should focus on getting the older
generation [and monarchists] to join us. No single person can lead the
Several American experts on Iranian politics question Pahlavi's ability
to launch a new revolution.
"The appearance of the crown prince at this particular time is
very interesting indeed. It shows there is a very serious power struggle
going on in Iran," said Andrew Hess, a professor at the Fletcher School
of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. But "there's a little bit
of unrealism on the part of most people where the internal struggle is
concerned. . . . The reality is that Supreme Leader Khamenei is in charge
of military forces and a good part of the security forces."
The economy is largely controlled by hard-line factions, he added. "All
of that means there isn't institutionalized support for [reformers] to
"I don't think Iranians are prepared to have a king of any kind,"
said Judith Kippler, a Middle East specialist with the Washington-based
Center for Strategic International Studies and Council on Foreign Relations.
"It's all nice in the salons of Los Angeles to talk about this, but
I don't think it resonates in Iran. I think it's a lost cause, although
it never hurts for people to speak up for democracy."
That, Pahlavi insists, is all he is trying to do.
"The issue today is to listen to what Reza Pahlavi has to say about
freedom. This is not about me, this is not about the monarchy. This is
about the future of Iran."
The yearning for outside support was evident in the days after his 20-minute
satellite address to Iran last month, he said. His Web site has received
tens of thousands of hits for days afterward.
Addressing Iranians as "sisters and brothers," a phrase once
used by Islamic revolutionaries, he encouraged them in the Jan. 12 speech
to peacefully dissent through demonstrations, labor strikes and boycotts.
The approach is one Pahlavi said he adopted from one of his heroes, Mohandas
K. Ghandi, who helped free India from the grasp of British colonial rule.
Pahlavi said he is also moved by American-born Iranians' commitment
to their parents' homeland, one they've never seen.
Still, it's hard to explain Iran to them, Pahlavi says; the smell of
the kababy, where lamb kababs were grilled over open flames, the vendors
selling walnuts, the snowcapped peaks of the Alborz range north of Tehran.
A Quiet Life in Maryland
"As an Iranian, I would rather be in my country," said Pahlavi,
who left him homeland in 1978 after graduating from high school. "It
makes it for me compelling, this conscience of duty."
His father was sought by Islamic revolutionaries as a criminal, but
the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said Reza Pahlavi was an "innocent"
and could return to Iran any time he wanted, the younger Pahlavi recalled.
"That is, until you speak out against the government," he added
with a smile.
Today, he resides in quiet comfort in Maryland with his 32-year-old
wife, Yasmine Etemad-Amini, and their two daughters, Noor, 8, and Iman,
7. The American-born girls, whose first language is English and who attend
private school, are not addressed as "princess," he said. The
girls call him baba, or daddy, and they take Persian language lessons.
Still, American influences are inescapable and, like their father, they
share a dual identity--even if they have never known Iran as he did as
a young prince.
"A year ago, my youngest daughter asked me a question: 'Baba, if
Iran is so dear to us, if you like it so much, how come we're not there?'
How do you explain to a 6-year-old why we can't be there?"