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Man Who Would Be Shah Seeks Job Ruling Iran

The New York Times
February 15, 2001

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 -- On the day four decades ago when Riza Pahlevi was born, crowds took to the streets throughout Iran to chant: ''It's a boy! God is great!'' An honor guard marked the moment with a 41-gun salute. Criers in the mosques called the faithful to prayer. Air force planes rained down thousands of bouquets. Royal edicts freed nearly 100 prisoners and ordered a nationwide tax cut of 20 percent.

An heir to the Peacock Throne had arrived, an infant destined by birth to rule over the Persian monarchy and assume the historical titles that went with the job: the sovereign, the Pivot of the Universe, the sultan, the King of Kings, the Royal Possessor of Kingdoms, the Shadow of Allah. The event made front-page news around the world. But that was long ago, long before a revolution in the name of religion overthrew the monarchy in 1979, sending Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi and his wife, Farah Diba, into exile and depriving their son of his birthright.

Twenty-two years later, Riza Pahlevi is struggling to make his mark, announcing ''a new phase'' in a campaign to peacefully remove the Islamic Republic and replace it with what he calls a ''democratic and secular government'' that just might crown him king.

All that's missing is a kingdom, since he reigns nowhere except over a small piece of the Internet.

He wages a lonely battle from his residence in suburban Maryland, from an office in Virginia and on a Web site (, whose opening page shows the now-banned flag with the sword-carrying lion beneath a sun that was the official symbol of the Pahlevi dynasty.

''Forty years since the day I was born I was given a responsibility by history,'' he said in an interview in a small conference room at the Four Seasons Hotel. ''I have this burden on my shoulder. Whether I was blessed or cursed -- I won't get into that. I cannot change my name. I cannot change who I am.''

At the National Press Club here recently, Mr. Pahlevi told reporters that he was a catalyst for change, calling for a national referendum to choose a new form of government.

''I am ready to serve and honored to do it as the next constitutional monarch,'' he said. Of course, he added, if the people choose a republic instead, ''I am just as happy to serve.''

Mr. Pahlevi has inherited the strong nose, bushy eyebrows and broad forehead of his father, but he wears well-cut suits, not the ermine-trimmed robes and heavy crown of the monarchy. His fingernails are beautifully manicured, his curly hair perfectly gelled.

He is only a bit grayer and heavier than he was on his 20th birthday, when, in a quiet ceremony in exile in Cairo, he kissed a copy of the Koran and proclaimed himself the new shah of Iran, the year after his father's death in 1980.

Over the years he has tried without success to rally Iranians behind his cause, announcing to Iranians in a clandestine television broadcast in 1986, for example, ''I will return.''

A graduate in political science from the University of Southern California and a fighter pilot trained in Texas, Mr. Pahlevi portrays himself as a religious man who does not drink alcohol and a family man who shops in the neighborhood supermarket and drives his two daughters, Noor and Iman, to the private French school in Maryland where they are students.

He says he has neither a chauffeur nor a private plane. His Iranian-born wife, identified in a recent news release as Princess Yasmine, is an American-educated lawyer, who he said was looking for a job.

Recently he delivered what he called his ''kickoff message'' via satellite time that was purchased privately from a European satellite system and broadcast twice to Iran. People contacted in Iran who closely monitor television said they had not seen the broadcast.

Certainly there is considerable nostalgia for the monarchy in Iran. Some Iranians, particularly in small towns and villages, still hang photos of Mr. Pahlevi's parents on their walls. Iranians reminisce about the days under the old regime when women could show their hair, when it was legal to drink alcohol and, most important, when the dollar was worth 70 rials (it now hovers around 8,000).

But despite the cult of the monarchy, there is no cult for Mr. Pahlevi, who is more of a curiosity than a political force.

His movement has neither a name nor a precise platform, except that his appeal is for the youth of the country -- about 65 percent of the population is under 25 -- to lead the charge against the Islamic Republic.

He calls for ''jump-starting the moribund state of the economy,'' yet he has spent the last 20 years unemployed. Several years ago he lost about $25 million of his family fortune through the mismanagement of his financial adviser.

He said he has only about one-fourth of his fortune left, but added, ''I'm not claiming to be poor.'' One moment he says that transfer of power should be nonviolent; in another he predicts: ''We expect a fight. We do. They're not going to just roll us the red carpet and leave.''

For now, Mr. Pahlevi lives with his memories (how he went to a school created especially for him on the grounds of the palace) and his regrets (how he had to leave Iran with none of his personal photographs or home movies).

Although he does not deny ''the mistakes'' of what he refers to euphemistically as ''the previous regime,'' he asks not to be compared to his father.

''George W. Bush is his own man with his own agenda and administration that has nothing to do with what his father did,'' he said. ''This institution that I represent lasted 3,000 years.''


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