Reza Pahlavi was 19 and studying in the United States when the Iranian Revolution drove his father — the Shah — from Tehran and into permanent exile in 1979.
He now heads the royal House of Pahlavi and was recently a guest at the two-day Miami World Strategic Forum at the Biltmore Hotel. In an interview with the Miami Herald, he discussed his hopes for a secular and democratic Iran, international efforts to prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon and other issues. Below are excerpts:
How successful were you during your visit to Miami World Strategic Forum?
This is the first time I’ve been asked to participate and it’s a good opportunity for me to benefit from areas of expertise as we’ve witnessed on the various panels, and at the same time, meet a lot of new faces. Of course, I had a chance to meet so many different personalities like the former prime minister of Pakistan [Shukat Aziz] or the former president of the Dominican Republic [Leonel Fernandez]. Personalities at this level have a wealth of knowledge and experience and it’s always nice to compare notes and share ideas or visions that are common to all of us.
Do you think that more people are aware now of the depth and complexity of the situation in Iran than they were before?
It depends on their field of interest. Although today the Middle East is so much the headline everywhere, Iran in particular, it’s a hard topic to miss. It’s the degree of penetration and depth of information which is the issue — to what extent there’s an indepth understanding. In many cases, the understanding is somewhat limited to whatever is being discussed at the media level. To understand it in a more profound way, you have to research it far deeper. Most of the people I’ve seen, especially a lot of the Canadian nationals, have been involved in their country’s government and foreign policy and are much more aware. Many have traveled to my country before, whether on a mission or on an individual basis. From the discussions I’ve had, it seems like the biggest concern is what is all of this going to lead us to?
That’s a very good question. What do you say?
The premise that I stand for, and I mean the majority of secular Iranian democrats stand for, is the simple proposition that the best way to guarantee sovereignty is the ballot. If you live in a country where free elections are non-existent, it cannot possibly be a system that is truly representative of popular will. Since the inception of this regime, you have a modern day theocracy with a supreme leader who is an unelected person that claims to have representation of God on the planet and has the final say on just about anything. This is the 21st century, we’re not talking about the Inquisition or the Dark Ages.
What do you say to people who argue that in the case of your father — or you if things worked out the way you would have wanted — there was not an election?
I’m not looking at the past. I’ve looking at the future. I’m my own man. I have my own vision. I have my own agenda. I have my own connection with today’s youth.
We live in an era of the Internet and Twitter and YouTube, where information is far more readily available. In that sense, the Iranian society is not deprived of information. What it is deprived of is the ability to speak freely and is itching for that opportunity. There has to be a mental readiness and a political maturity process of learning from all that.
Is Iran politically or mentally ready to take the next step, as you see it?
Forty or 50 years ago, debating a religious issue was a taboo subject. Today it’s not. The way I see my country today and the path it can have as a result of all this experience is pointing us to the most obvious conclusion: Where is it that people can be guaranteed their full rights and equality? What has to be the premise on which there is no official ideology that is going to rule at the expense of others? How can the rights of everyone be protected under the law, regardless of their ethnicity, religious preference, being a woman as opposed to a man? All of this is no longer a theory but a demand and expectation. As such, I think the country is ready today to challenge its ultimate phase of political evolution, not just social and economic evolution. And if we didn’t quite negotiate the best way possible from political evolution to fullfledge democracy in the middle of the 20th century, I think today the country is much more ripe and ready for it.
What signs are you seeing that this readiness is there?
Underground networks. Accessing the world through different VPN to post something, whether it’s on their Facebook page or it’s a blog that they clandestinely publish. We monitor all of this. There are many different ways that this opposition manifest itself. You know, a 30-minute clip that is posted on YouTube of a villager who has something to say or a protest that he makes to a factory that hasn’t paid him his salary. There are a lot of media that cover Iran that have ample feedback of the opinion of people on the street. Those are not complicated to find out if you know where to look.
I know you don’t necessarily want to look back but the Shah has been gone now for a long time. And you’ve been in a struggle for a long time. Surely you hoped there would have been a different result by now.
Some people look at this religious revolution as a disaster and it has been one. I look at it in a very odd way as a blessing in disguise. When you look for instance at the civil rights movement in the United States, it was after decades of suffering, injustice and inequality that we saw its success. Let’s take the case of apartheid. It has to reach that level where enough is enough.
When was that suffering period for Iran — now or during the time of the Shah?
As you educate society, and as you modernize the country, and as people’s economic status becomes better and better, so would be the expectation of more participation. The level of liberalization in a political sense was a challenge that was not negotiated the best way possible. Keep in mind, this was in a period of the Cold War. There was a constant menace of the Soviet bloc trying to have a hold and satellize many countries through their various networks. We had at the time in Iran the Communist party, which was the second-oldest after the Russian communist party in the world.
Let’s talk about the nuclear deal recently announced between Iran and the P5 +1. Why don’t you support it?
I don’t think anybody is yet prepared to call it a deal. It’s more of an agreed procedural step that could lead to a finalization of something that could ultimately reach an agreement. Before I get to the specifics of this deal, I would like to point to two elements that I think have been a pretty important flaw in the kind of political expectation from the Western world in particular. At the time of the Cold War, we had two diametrically opposite blocs in the world but there was the possibility of coexistence to the point of having military treaties signed between the blocs. The problem you have with the kind of regime like the one you have in Iran today is that it is impossible to expect that they can possibly coexist with the same world that holds dear values of freedom, equality and democracy. They want to model the world after a modern day caliphate. The slogan of “Death to America” is not just a cute thing. It is a true statement of their ideology. For them to succeed they have to defeat you. If you understand that, you’ll understand why I thought from the very beginning that even the policy of sanctions imposed on the regime were for the wrong reasons. It would be legitimizing a regime that is yet to prove that what it claims it’s willing to commit to and abide by is even measurable. For all of these reasons, I’m not placing too much hope that we can reach the kind of agreement that the whole world can breathe tranquility and say we have the problems solved and can move on and normalize the situation.
Are we dealing with an Iran that we do not understand?
The lack of transparency has now forced everyone to say that there’s something afoot here that smells very bad.
The reaction in Iran to the announcement was very celebratory. At least that’s what was portrayed on television. Was the reaction manufactured?
Iranians were not told the truth. The government pretty much insinuated that a deal had been reached and the sanctions were going to be lifted. You and I know we have yet to even reach the state of an agreement, which is supposed to happen in June.
Some would say you sound like a spokesman for the Israeli government, with whom the Obama administration has disagreements on this issue. Fair?
I don’t think it’s something that has to be construed as a position that Israel might agree on or for that matter Saudi Arabia might agree on. If you look at the disposition of the counties in the region, they all know that at the end of the day, well beyond the nuclear issue is the fact that at this strength, proliferation will almost be guaranteed. I have a hard time believing that if it’s not carefully scrutinized, or if there’s not complete proof and assurance given, it’s not just Israelis who will be concerned.
You’re very passionate about these issues. How will we know if you succeed?
The day that Iranians can finally go the polls and freely decide for themselves what they want for their future, it would be the first time in their entire history that Iranians can claim that we were responsible to define and decide our own destiny. That would be a huge, huge achievement.
Follow John Yearwood on Twitter @john_yearwood.
Born in Tehran, Iran on Oct. 31, 1960 to the late Shah and Empress Farah Pahlavi. As Crown Prince of Iran and the oldest of four siblings, he left Iran at the age of 17 for air force training, during which time the regime in Iran blocked his return.
Earned a degree in political science from the University of Southern California. An accomplished jet fighter pilot, Pahlavi completed the United States Air Force Training Program at the Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas.
For over thirty years, Pahlavi has been a leader and advocate of the principles of freedom, democracy and human rights for Iranians, and travels the world speaking about the plight of Iranians under the Islamic regime.