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My vision by Reza Pahlavi: increasingly disenchanted with the ruling regime of hard-line clerics, supports for Reza Pahlavi -- the man who advocates secular democracy -- is growing inside Iran. Adel Darwish talked to Prince Reza about his hopes for the homeland he was forced to flee more than 20 years ago. (Current Affairs).

When American bombs were raining down on what is left of Afghanistan last November, fellow Muslims in the neighbouring Islamic republic of Iran took to the streets. Contrary to the expectations of many in the West, they did not rally to denounce `the Great Satan' -- the name given to America by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Instead, ordinary Iranians, in one of the most extraordinary shifts in the geopolitical landscape since 11 September, challenged their own hard-line Islamic clerics, the very group that swept Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi into exile in 1979.

Tens of thousands of Iranian men and women also demonstrated in several cities after World Cup qualifying soccer matches. Amid expressions of support for the national football team, the protesters could be heard chanting, "We love you, America". After smashing up banks, public telephones, street lighting and bus stops, hundreds were arrested.

The man emerging as an important figurehead for the nascent rebellion is none other than the late shah's son, 41 year-old former fighter pilot, Reza Pahlavi, who has spent the last two decades in exile.

When he was 14 years old, his father was diagnosed with lymphoma. As a result, the teenage prince had to grow up quickly. He was snatched from the teenage culture of his peers and thrust into a monarchical apprenticeship, which included state visits to Egypt and England. A mere four years later, his father died in Egypt. Reza Pahlavi struggled to fight back tears, as distressed Iranian nationalists gathered in Cairo to witness him taking the oath as legal claimant of the Iranian throne.

In 1980, when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein tore up the treaty he had signed with his father five years earlier, Prince Reza sent a telegram to General Velayatollah Felahie, Chief Commander of the Iranian armed forces, offering to serve in the Iranian air force as a fighter pilot to defend his nation. The ayatollahs turned down his offer, believing his presence would contradict their version of Iran's history.

Twenty two years later, Prince Reza Pahlavi, looking more and more like his late father, still offers his service to his nation. He looks a little more tired than on the last occasion we met, early last year, in the same modest central London hotel. The staff there dearly adore him and welcome the growing number of supporters, from among London's Iranian community, who have come to pay their respects.

Despite his cold-generated cough, the prince spoke enthusiastically for almost two hours about his vision of Iran and the progress of his campaign for democracy, which he discussed in an interview with The Middle East last year.

Commenting on what his mother Empress Farah Pahlavi, told London's Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat two days earlier -- that her son wants to return and serve his country like any ordinary citizen -- the Shah in, exile says the important thing is that the people of Iran are given the right to choose how they wish to be governed. Whether the future for Iran involves a republic or a constitutional monarchy, is not the issue at this time, he says. The first aim should be for the wishes of the Iranian people to be recorded in a free and fair election. "My mission in life, from the day I started 21 years ago, remains the same," said the man whom most Iranian liberals in exile, as well as an increasing number of Iranians at home, consider to be Iran's hope of salvation from what many describe as its current nightmare.

He outlines his vision for a comprehensive strategy to give the Iranian people freedom of choice and real democracy, in his book, Winds of Change: the Future of Democracy in Iran, published last month (Feb 2002) in Washington by Regency Publishing Inc., which he dedicates to the memory of all Iran's fallen heroes and patriots.

"My goal is to reach a stage where the Iranian people can go to a national referendum and vote with their conscience for their future. That day, the day the Iranians go to the polls, is the end of my mission in life. What they want to do afterwards is entirely up to them. I stand ready to serve them in whatever capacity they see fit. It is simply important that believers in secular democracy come together to achieve that goal."

Prince Reza's opinions are shared by growing numbers of people inside the Islamic Republic, where, increasingly, the rallying cry is for secular democracy. In 1997, when the voters elected philosopher Mohammed Khatami, thought by the West to be the most liberal candidate the ayatollahs could stomach, the idea of an Islamic democracy -- although unworkable in practice -- held great promise. With talk of a `dialogue of civilisations' Khatami caught the imagination of the Iranian public and western journalists. John Lancaster of The Washington Post described him as `Ayatollah Gorbachev,' prompting debate as to whether he was just a reformer, or a revolutionary who would usher in Iranian Perestroika. Many Middle East specialists now say he is neither; Khatami was, after all, trained in the conservative seminaries of Qom, and is part of the regime, a point Reza Pahlavi capitalises on to warn us -- western journalists and governments -- against a trap we might fall into and consequently "betray the Iranian people, who deserve better. They themselves have scratched the surface of Khatami's reforms and uncovered the truth," Prince Reza notes. "This good cop, bad cop game was a carefully designed tactic by the Islamic regime to confuse the outside world into some kind of appeasement," he adds.

He dismisses the idea of a moderate Khatami intent upon bringing about real change. Any change at this stage would be superficial and made with the purpose of helping lift US sanctions or improving trade to serve the interests of the ruling elite, and not for the benefit of millions of impoverished Iranians.

"There is no such thing as a moderate in this (theological Islamic Republic) system," Prince Reza observes, illustrating his point by taking a leaf from Europe's own painful history book: "We saw it with the Nazis; some people were arguing that Ribbentrop was more moderate than Himmler, but they were [both] Nazis at the end."

In that sense, says Reza Pahlavi, Mr Khatami's loyalty is to the regime, his allegiance is to the constitution, the only written constitution in the world that rejects popular sovereignty. "We see, under this so-called moderate system and its reformist president, parliamentary members being incarcerated; most of the Iranian newspapers shut down and their employees made political prisoners. The popular rhetoric is aimed at confusing the outside world. The struggle in Iran today is not about the moderate camp versus the radical camp," he went on, "rather it pits the forces of state despotism and religious fundamentalism against a nation that demands democracy, rejects militant domination and repudiates the concept of a supreme leader who rules over the others by divine law. In evaluating the progress of his year of campaigning and calling upon his people to use "non-violent means and general civil disobedience to force change", Reza Pahlavi cited a few examples of unrest from inside Iran, in addition to last November's demonstrations.

The candle-lit vigil held by many Iranians, men and women of all ages and from all walks of life, on the night of 11 September, was a liberal phenomenon using western Christian symbols, like candles, in defiance of the regime; those who participated certainly risked arrest by the revolutionary guard.

"Iran," commented the prince, "is the only country in the area where the majority of the people show sympathy to the West but the regime is hostile to it. It is important for the world," he said, "to separate the Iranian people from their unpopular ruling regime."

He cited several examples, such as Iraq and Afghanistan: "When the Taliban left Kabul, we immediately saw women taking off their burqas, the radio began broadcasting music and songs. Similarly, when the East German government fell and the Soviet system fell, there was great rejoicing. What does this say about the true sentiment of these nations before the changes took place?" he asked. "This is exactly what you would see in Iran ... as a matter of fact we see it today."

He says 11 September was, and should be, an eye-opener for the West and particularly for America. "The tragedy caused decision-making circles in the West to evaluate western short-termism and begin considering long term interests.

"Who in the West, before 11 September, gave any thought to the suffering of the Afghani people? Afghanistan was not on any list of western priorities, let alone a concern for western public opinion.

"The events of 11 September were a painful lesson to be digested by the West," he added. Eradicating terrorism needs a detailed long-term strategy and continued effort. "Terrorism will not disappear by jailing people such as Carlos the Jackal, or killing Bin Laden and destroying the bases of Al Qaeda and Hizbullah. It is essential to deal with the root causes, confronting regimes that support terrorism and addressing the factors that create the culture, including those exploited by twisted-minded clergy and the likes of Bin Laden, who brainwash the young into becoming suicide bombers."

Interestingly, he reminded historians that the Islamic suicide-bomber phenomenon, only emerged with Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary doctrine.

Prince Reza believes that the painful lessons of history show that true democracy is the only basis for any lasting political solution. "By spreading democracy and ending social, political and economic injustice, by encouraging religious tolerance, social justice and fighting poverty in our Muslim countries, we can secure our societies and protect them against the threat of fundamentalism and terrorism recruitment movements," he explained, while listing the ingredients of his long-term recipe for eradicating terrorism from the Islamic world.

The Iranian regime responded to 11 September with typical ambivalence; condemning the terrorists, after vigils were held by the people, but saying that the United Nations, not the United States, should lead any war on terrorism. Yet the truth, which is recognised by Reza Pahlavi, is that ordinary Iranians aren't much bothered by events in Afghanistan, even though Iran's hard-line media plays up reports of civilian casualties.

His contacts inside Iran, which he claims have continued since the family left the country in 1978, are growing in size, providing him with news of what is going on there. His website, Prince Reza confirmed, had scored several million hits, mainly from inside Iran, during the 10 months since we last met, and he has also received hundreds of thousands of personal e-mails from inside the country.

"The people of Iran could use a much-needed boost of support from the free world," Reza Pahlavi said in a speech at Yale University, just five days before the demonstrations in which participants chanted his name in Iran last November. "They especially look to America as a beacon of hope, expecting her not to let them down by cutting a deal with the rulers of Iran for short-term gains."

A report in the Wall Street Journal last November indicated that young Iranians, who form the majority of the population, were curious and somewhat intrigued by the man whose father died in exile years before they were born, and of whom they have only recently learned details

"He [Reza Pahlavi] says we need freedom. He says we'll be like Europe," 17 year-old Afshin Sadeqi, a Tehran teenager, told Wall Street Journal writers. The young student had never heard of Reza Pahlavi until last October, when he saw him speaking on videotape. "We didn't know who he was," Mr Sadeqi says. "But as soon as we heard him, we felt it was our own feelings described in words we couldn't say. He said them beautifully."

The protesters' taunts directed at Iran's clerical leadership were astonishing, the Wall Street Journal report continues, particularly the use of phrases such as: `We love you, America' and `We love you, Reza Pahlavi.'

"Until a month ago, nobody knew who Reza Pahlavi was," says Mr Havaji, a 38 year-old civil engineer. "We Iranians want to be players in the global village, and his [westernised] character fits this picture very well. When he says we just want to be normal again, this touches everybody. Our society has decided it wants to become a secular democracy."

Reza Pahlavi described to me how the ruling regime, after these reports were published, sent police around the houses confiscating satellite dishes. His advice to his fellow Iranians, on his website and via his broadcasts, is to smash their dishes in order to stop the corrupt elements of the regime selling them their own `confiscated' dishes back, a few months from now, at inflated prices. Such advice rang true with local people and revealed Prince Reza not only as a man who cares, but one who also knows exactly what goes on in Iran, despite living in exile.

Taking a few sheets of paper from the inside pocket of his smart suit, where he had many scribbled notes in Farsi, Prince Reza's eyes lit up and he grinned from ear to ear as he translated a selection of the slogans used by demonstrators against the regime in several demonstrations held in late January -- one of which coincided with a visit by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan -- and others chanted by students demonstrating in support of their teachers. "Leave Palestine alone and attend to our needs," said one. "Your media is not saying enough about us," criticised another. Yet more, including: "The incompetent must resign" and "Enough, we are tired of 20 years of betrayal," could hardly have been more direct in their criticism."

Prince Reza will be looking to a variety of Iranian groups for support to bring about democratic change; they include the intelligentsia, the professional classes, an increasingly alienated section of the clergy, including many Islamic scholars, weary of the theological autocratic elite who, they believe, have isolated them from the people. Last but not least, he will be looking for the support of the bazaaris or merchant class, whose desertion of his father they believe dealt a fatal blow to his ruling regime.

Mr Pahlavi, says Franklin Foer in the New Republic, has carefully crafted his appeal to Iranian youth, by far the country's most dynamic political force. His comments are laced with references to their frustration, which he seems to have adroitly adopted as his own.

Reza Pahlavi said that "the message from [Iran's] 50 million young is that an investment in the people of Iran and their rightful struggle for secularism and popular sovereignty, is the best guarantee against continued regional instability and radicalism emanating from Tehran."

He also championed women's rights, regarded as the Islamic regime's Achilles' heel. When asked about women's rights by a caller from Iran in a recent two-hour interview on satellite television, he responded: "Women's rights are human rights ... Under the clerics, however, Iranian women have suffered the most by having been subjected to the most humiliating social restrictions and laws."

Several reporters who have visited Tehran in recent months cited another sign of Reza Pahlavi's resurgence. The Islamic government fears him. His recent statements condemning the regime's human rights record have evoked apoplectic responses from ayatollahs in the government-run newspapers. The mullahs have even vigorously protested former King Zahir Shah's return to Afghanistan because, Iran watchers argue, they worry it might set a precedent for Pahlavi. While there are several other opposition figures, according to analysts, many people have started perceiving Reza Pahlavi as the only credible alternative to the ruling regime.

Cyrus Kadivar, a London-based Iranian businessman, says that the young Iranians of today hear their parents talk about the days of the late Shah, about the prosperity and the choices they had, choices which no longer exist. "They simply tell their children that the older generation made a terrible mistake by getting rid of the Shah, which they now regret."

Mr Kadivar heard from his father how, in 1960, the Shah was very close to his people, his `white revolution' giving the Iranians hope of progress, prosperity and generous welfare. There was no sign on the horizon, at that point, of the flood that would drown the nation 17 years later. Distinguished journalist and historian, Dr Ali Nouri Zadeh, says the years of Reza's growing up were associated, in the minds of most Iranians, with years of prosperity and progress.

He recalls how, in November 1960, thousands of Iranians flooded the streets around the Mother and Child Maternity Hospital, within minutes of Tehran radio announcing that Empress Farah, the third wife of the Shah, had given birth to a healthy male child inside, who would be known as Prince Reza.

"The late Shah separated from his first wife, Princess Fawziyah of Egypt, after she gave birth to only one child, a daughter, Shahenaz. He then divorced his second wife, Soraya, who was discovered to be unable to have children. The people of Iran had waited for many years, pinning their hopes on Empress Farah giving birth to a son and securing the continuity of the monarchy. Prince Reza's birth was greeted by much rejoicing."

Four decades later, Iranians are again gathering in the streets, calling out the name of Prince Reza. Could the people be awaiting the rebirth of the house of Pahlavi to start another white revolution, this time, one based on full democracy?
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Author:Darwish, Adel
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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