Press conference at the National Press
Club in Washington. Photo by J. Javid
Holding on to the monarchy will not do him any good
January 25, 2001
Reza Pahlavi has many things going for him. On a personal level, he's
intelligent, articulate and very friendly. Politically, he's clearly the
most prominent opposition figure outside Iran. The only real political
force other than him is the Mojahedin Khalq, but their extremism and cultist
behavior has made them almost universally despised among Iranians.
Thanks to the religious fanaticism of the clerical establishment, there's
an undeniable sense of nostalgia towards Mohammad Reza Shah. Many think
he was not as bad as they thought he was at the time of the 1979 revolution.
Or at least they think the Shah did the country less harm than Ayatollah
Khomeini and the man who replaced him. And a good many now believe the
quality of life was better under the Shah, despite the political repression.
At the same time, Iran seems to be heading towards another major crisis.
The reformists, despite winning three stunning victories in the presidential,
city council and parliamentary elections, have been unable to deliver on
their promise of change and greater freedoms. The conservative establishment
has vetoed every major attempt at reform and stepped up its campaign against
the independent press and reformist critics.
The people who voted overwhelmingly for reform in recent elections,
have become deeply disillusioned, as all avenues for peaceful progress
appear to be blocked. Whatever hope there was of seeing the Islamic Republic
gradually transform into a democracy has evaporated to a large extent.
The general public's disgust towards the clergy is at an all time high.
So Reza Pahlavi appears to have picked the right moment to begin what he
calls a new chapter in the national struggle for freedom and democracy.
Press conference excerpts here
But the good news for him ends just about there.
No politician or political group outside Iran can have a major impact
on what goes on inside. Iran is very different from 1979. Khomeini succeeded
in large part because he had the backing of a wide religious network. Back
then the clergy had much more clout and respect among the public. Reza
Pahlavi, on the other hand, does not have an organized base inside Iran.
Plus, nostalgia for the Shah's days does not translate into a desire
for the restoration of the monarchy. Iranians have moved far beyond that.
Given a choice, there's absolutely no doubt that the people would choose
a democratic republic rather than the restoration of the monarchy. What
Mohammad Mossadegh stood for is far more appealing to the public than the
In his press conference yesterday, Reza Pahlavi at times sounded like
a reluctant monarch. He said he was born into the monarchy, and as the
heir to the throne, he feels he is on a mission set out for him by history
not personal choice. He said he would not insist on the restoration of
the throne. Instead, the people should decide in a referendum what form
of government they wish to have. If they choose a democratic republic,
he would accept their choice and renounce his claim to the throne.
But why even call for a referendum when you already know the clear majority
just want a secular democracy? Why even suggest the monarchy as a possible
future form of government when most people have no desire for it? Reza
Pahlavi says just because his father made mistakes, it does not mean that
he would act the same way. That may be true. But any talk of bringing back
the monarchy -- even a democratic constitutional monarchy -- does not win
you political points these days.
Suppose there's a new revolution and the clerical regime crumbles. Then
20 years later Ali Khamenei's son comes along and he admits to the wrongdoings
under his father. He says he is different and won't make the same mistakes
as his father. And he calls for the restoration of a kinder, gentler, even
democratic, velayat-e faqih. Would anyone believe him, even if he was sincere?
Would anyone be terribly impressed?
Should the Chinese bring back the old royal family because they have
lost faith in the present communist regime? Should the Russians reinstall
the tzar? The Afghans have been miserable since the fall of their king.
Is there any chance of him coming back to power? It's not going to happen.
The monarchy and velayat-e faqih have one very important thing in common.
And that is the notion that one man, or one family, or one social class,
has the God-given right to rule over a nation. Even under the best circumstances
when the monarch or the vali-e faqih does not interfere in the government's
affairs, the concept of a royal or holy figure head goes against the principles
of modern politics. It does not matter if you are the Queen of England
or a modern, free-thinking molla -- neither should have special titles
or exclusive privileges beyond ordinary citizens.
And the fact that Iran was ruled by monarchs for thousands of years,
does not make the monarchy a legitimate or desirable form of government.
We had monarchies because we had no other choice. Now we do. The people
of Iran are more than familiar with the concept of secular democracy and
you are going to have a hell of a time convincing them to aim for anything
That's why Reza Pahlavi's calls for unity among Iran's opposition groups
has not been widely embraced, if at all. Yes, he will always be able to
energize his loyal followers. But the rest see him as a symbol of the past,
not a beacon for the future.
In the world of politics, it does not matter if Reza Pahlavi was not
responsible for what his father did. And it does not matter if he wholeheartedly
believes in democracy. As long as he represents an outdated and undesirable
form of government that never had a popular base to begin with, he will
be, for the most part, ignored.
The bottom line is that this Pahlavi does not come across as a megalomanic
Citizen Cane. He may very well be a genuine democrat. But the only way
he can prove it to the general public, and be taken seriously, is simply
to be Citizen Pahlavi.