Son of shah keeps eye on Iran's politics

Based in Va., Pahlavi envisions homeland as secular democracy

War On Terrorism

The World

October 26, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Reza Pahlavi can tell you all about the militant Islamic tidal wave that washed Osama bin Laden's operatives to the shores of America. He witnessed its beginning in early 1979, as the 17-year-old crown prince of Iran, eldest son of the ruling shah.

While much of Iran took to the streets in joyous celebration, Pahlavi flew with the royal family into exile, his father at the controls of their private Boeing 707. Filling the vacuum of power was the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with his bearded scowl and promises of democratic reform. Instead, Khomeini ushered in decades of icy Islamic theocracy that have only recently shown signs of democratization.

Now, after attending college, spending a few years in Egypt and Morocco, and residing 17 years in the United States, Pahlavi has nudged himself back into the periphery of Iran's political arena, mostly via an Internet Web site and contacts in Iran.

Traveling from his home base in Northern Virginia to spread the word, Pahlavi, 40, gives speeches and writes opinion pieces for American and European newspapers, talking up secular democracy as the best antidote for theocratic roiling and its ripples of terrorism and regional instability.

He'd like to see Iran again setting the trend. "In every region, there is a pivotal country that holds the secret to the entire area," he said in a recent interview. "Iran is definitely, in my opinion, that country [in the Middle East]. Ever since the revolution in Iran, the whole area has gone haywire, and most of our neighbors recognize that Iran holds the key to regional stability."

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Pahlavi has fine-tuned his message, often including references to Afghanistan and bin Laden as he seeks the ear of an American public suddenly more attentive to voices discussing the perils of militant Islamism.

These are somewhat heady times for former monarchies in the Middle East. The aging exiled king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, ousted from power in 1973, is being touted both by outsiders and Afghan opposition leaders as a possible "caretaker" monarch who could help lead the country to a brighter, more democratic future if the ruling Taliban are toppled.

The tactic has worked before. The United Nations helped engineer such a role for King Sihanouk in Cambodia after two decades of bloody upheaval.

Pahlavi wouldn't mind a similar role, foreseeing a constitutional monarchy as one of several plausible possibilities in a future Iran ruled by secular democracy.

"When I look at Iran today, I think that the element of a national symbol of unity is still something that is an added blanket of security that a nation can have," he said. "But at this point, I'm not looking at my role from the point of view of an institutional role.

"That's an option that people [in Iran] should have and can decide for themselves if they still think it is necessary."

He readily acknowledges the mistakes of his late father's rule, marked by a lavish royal lifestyle and a brutal secret police. Those faults helped create the misery in the streets that gave the Islamic overwash its lift and power, inspiring militant Islamists elsewhere with its anti-Western venom.

"I have inherited the name, but I have not genetically inherited the predicaments or the political circumstances of my predecessor," he said. "I am a realist. I'm a modern man. This is not about the monarchy or about the past. It's about the future."

Pahlavi would like to enlist U.S. support in his effort, though for the moment the State Department seems determined to work behind the scenes for better relations with the current regime.

"All that the people of Iran can ask for is [for the United States] to stop dealing with the clerical regime in Iran, to cut off their economic lifeline, and stand with us in our quest for reform," he said. "You don't need to send us troops. You don't need to send us arms, you don't need to do anything of that nature, because we have the manpower and the resources."

It is far easier for Pahlavi to spread the word here than in Iran. But recent technologies have offered him a way past the border guards.

His Web site has racked up more than 20 million hits since it began in January, and he believes that most have come from Iran. Television interviews with networks such as CNN carry his message home by satellite. As a result, he said, "I have signals from the clergymen, I have signals from the revolutionary guards, all of that telling me that not only have they heard my message, but they're thinking of how they can find an appropriate way" to push for reform.

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