Reza Pahlavi, son of the former shah of Iran, recently spoke at the European Parliament urging that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps be listed as terrorists. International isolation and financial punishment for those brutalizing Iranian protestors would help to deepen regime fissures and induce defections, argues the man who would have been king had Iran not been overtaken by Islamists in the revolution of 1979.
Pahlavi is the most popular figure today in the homeland he was forced to flee over four decades ago. Successive polls measuring political attitudes have shown him leading other prominent Iranians by a wide margin in recent years, and protestors have been risking life and limb to chant for his return and against the revolution that turned their country upside down. Pahlavi’s family—his grandfather Reza Shah, Iran’s nation builder; his father Mohommad Reza Shah, the modernizer; his mother Farah Pahlavi, beloved patron of the arts, education, and civic life—have become emblematic in the Iranian psyche of a bygone era of dignity and progress. Iranian social media and satellite TV, nearly ubiquitous despite official restrictions, are replete with images of the modernist grandeur of the dynasty juxtaposed with the suffocating aesthetic of the black clad, octogenarian clerics who order killing, rape, and torture of innocents in the name of God. It is a return of the repressed, a resurgence of the collective subconscious of a nation that once was.
Those who risk all to protest the theocracy are mostly the young, born long after the revolution. Though they have no experience other than totalitarian rule, many grew up listening to older relatives speak about life before the Islamic Republic—the personal freedoms, economic livelihoods, openness to the world, ease of traveling abroad, the normal mixing of the sexes and of the pious and the secular, the sense of national pride, and the profound loss that came with an anti-Western, retrograde regime. Girls and women especially know the Islamist revolution is to blame for their daily humiliation, oppression, segregation, inequality, and severe economic disempowerment, the inevitable consequence of their real-world Handmaid’s Tale. The brutal killing of Mahsa Amini could have been their fate. Their horrors have grown unbearable.
Pahlavi reminds them of what they can be again.
After the decision by Reza Shah in 1936 to decree women’s unveiling and facilitate their entry into schools and the public sphere, Iran was transformed such that only a few decades later, Pahlavi’s feminist mother and his feminist paternal aunt Ashraf Pahlavi represented Iran on the world stage and opened vast opportunities for women. Pahlavi has lived his own life confounded, as millions of ordinary Iranians, by the stark contrast of that egalitarianism and worldliness with the Islamist cabal that has reversed every measure of advancement. As a father to three daughters, he has commented on his own feminism and commitment to the rights of all minorities, not least the LGBT violently persecuted in Iran. At heart Pahlavi is a secular humanist, a man yearning to bring the liberalism of America and France—the two Western political traditions in which he has found refuge and intellectual affinity—to the nation he yearns to rescue from a now stale, despised fanaticism.
His plain truthfulness is hard to come by in the Iranian political culture, which may explain the trust he inspires. That trust could be the balm for a traumatized society whose most difficult challenges may still lie ahead, in the hard process of transition from evil. Pahlavi aims to shepherd a process of democratization that would allow free choice over the future form of government and establish the separation of powers with checks and balances and restraint on the executive. He prefers to be called the “people’s advocate” rather than their leader, admitting from time to time—both to Western observers and to his ardent monarchist supporters—that he himself may prefer republicanism over constitutional monarchy, but that the people will decide their future in a free and fair vote. Regardless of their choice, Pahlavi has pledged to keep out of the country’s daily politics, focusing instead on fostering the rise of a culture of democracy rooted in strong institutions, liberal education, and a vibrant civil society.
Because Pahlavi transcends partisan differences and routinely urges unity to achieve overthrow, those who support him far exceed those who insist on a return to Iran’s 2,500-year history of the throne. Iranians who prefer republicanism or who have no firm stance on the form of the future government also see in Pahlavi a leader who can bring a wounded nation together around a rational, centrist political platform. That platform has remained unchanged over four decades, featuring secularism; equality and the rule of law; democratic institutions; national unity and territorial integrity; friendship with the West and Iran’s neighbors, notably Israel; a liberal education system; a merit-based economy that pushes past oil and gas to tech innovation; and the prioritizing of solutions to Iran’s ecological malaise and extreme water crisis.
Unlike many Iranian political figures who are tainted in the eyes of the public for participating in the 1979 revolution or falling for the regime’s lie of reformism, Pahlavi has no past in Islamism or Marxism. This will carry him a long way, but he has challenges unique to his own position, for he has not lived under the regime he is working to overthrow. He will need to show an understanding not only of democratic ideals but also of the suffering and deep economic pain of the vast majority of Iranians. He urgently needs to present operational readiness—the strategic planning, the team, the international partnerships—to address his compatriots’ basic human needs in the precarious period of provisional governance should the regime fall. Chaos and instability could easily fill a vacuum left by a lack of practical preparedness. There is no telling when the regime may collapse, so Pahlavi must convey that he has the capacity not only to communicate and inspire but to execute. Iran’s next revolution may be farther along than even he realizes.
Mariam Memarsadeghi is the founder and director of Cyrus Forum and a leading advocate for a democratic Iran.
Image: An image of Reza Pahlavi during an Iran opposition protest. (Flickr: Taymaz Valley)
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe