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Press conference at the National Press Club in Washington. Photo by J. Javid

Citizen Pahlavi
Holding on to the monarchy will not do him any good

January 25, 2001
The Iranian

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 monarchy.

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 less.

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.

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