He’s the son of the last Shah of Iran and now a spokesman for a new organization trying to unite Iranian dissidents in exile. And Reza Pahlavi has come to seek support from western governments in fomenting a pro-democracy civil-disobedience movement inside Iran.
As Iran prepares for its June 14 presidential elections, Mr. Pahlavi is promoting a protest campaign that would see Iranians mail or fax their ballots to foreign embassies, or to the UN, to say they want free elections. One day, he argues, labour strikes will bring the regime down.
Mr. Pahlavi’s own role as a spokesman for a new Iranian National Council, a group trying to bring opponents of the regime together behind a camapign for fair elections, is in itself an oddity. The former crown prince, who left Iran in 1979 at age 17, and is now 52, is coy about whether he would be king, saying that’s not what matters now. The harsh rule of his father was long blamed for the revolution that followed. But now, he says, he has political capital he’ll use to foster unity among the regime’s opponents.
On a visit to Canada, his key message is that western nations worried that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, or sponsoring terrorism, have a better strategy than military intervention: supporting Iranian dissidents’ efforts to replace the Islamic Republic with a democracy.
“We believe that a democratic regime replacing this religious dictatorship will eliminate in one strike so many issues that the world is concerned about, whether it’s the nuclear agenda, whether it’s terrorism, whether it’s spreading its fanatic ideology, and many other things,” Mr. Pahlavi said in an interview.
He argues that the democratic nations must do more to support the opposition within and outside Iran, in a campaign of civil disobedience aimed at truly free elections that will change the regime. There’s never been formal international-community dialogue with the Iranian opposition, or strong signals to dissidents that they’re not alone, he said. Sanctions should be made smarter, he added, and must be combined with international support for Iranians themselves to change the regime from within.
After suspending diplomatic ties to Tehran last year, the Canadian government has now tried to open ties to Iranian dissidents and help them connect to each other, he noted.
“I think this could serve as a model to other countries, pretty soon, whether it’s Europe or elsewhere, saying ‘hey, we need to do that.’ We can’t expect people to miraculously overcome this goliath that hits them on the head and shoots them in the street, but not be willing to give them a little sense of support and assistance,” he said.
“Otherwise, we’re throwing people to the lions, with no means to defend themselves. And what do you expect is going to happen?”
But Mr. Pahlavi argues that non-violent action can be effective, though it won’t be without cost for Iranians. The opposition must promote not just the goal, but how it expects change to happen, he said – with a plan for national reconciliation so those working inside Iran’s bureaucracy don’t expect to be “out of work, or persecuted.” Labour action, as part of an overall strategy, will help bring change, he argued.
“I believe that orchestrating massive labour strikes will ultimately paralyze the system, forcing a collapse from within.” He added: “Will this regime voluntarily concede? Probably not. We have no other choice but to overcome this regime by means of bringing it down. The question is the method.”
The Paris-based National Council that Mr. Pahlavi represents is by no means the first group of dissidents aiming to promote change in Iran. There have been “maybe too many of them,” said Hassan Houchang-Yari, a political-science professor and Iranian expert at the Royal Military College in Kingston. The Council is an attempt, still in its infancy, to bring republicans, royalists, conservatives, leftists, and others under one umbrella.
But Mr. Pahlavi is the son of the late Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. His father’s restictive rule and harsh secret police, SAVAK, have for decades been widely blamed for sparking the Islamist revolution that followed, Mr. Hassan-Yari said. Not all Iranian dissidents will want the son as spokesman for a democratic movement. But time, and the harsh record of the Islamic Republic, has changed the view of some, and Mr. Pahlavi himself has acknowledged that his father’s regime made mistakes, Mr. Hassan-Yari said. “There’s a kind of nostalgia now.”
Mr. Pahlavi said it’s not clear whether he will one day be monarch. “It’s a possibility I leave to the Iranian people,” he said. What matters is not whether the form of Iran’s state is republic or monarchy, “so long as the content is secular democracy.”
“But I’m not preoccupied by that,” he said. “I think that I could play a role, and I probably will play a role, but my role today is very clear,” he said. “I have a political capital that many Iranians recognize in me, and I’m dedicating this capital to help (foster) as much as possible the unity, the harmony between all democratic-thinking Iranians, irrespctive of their ideological preference.”