Exiled Son of Iran’s Last Shah Steps Up to Lead Galvanized Diaspora

Reza Pahlavi has been on the fringes of Iranian politics for decades, an exiled crown prince with a smattering of monarchist supporters inside and outside the country.

But Pahlavi, the US-based son of Iran’s last Shah deposed in the 1979 revolution, has in recent months become a figurehead of an increasingly ambitious diaspora opposition that believes the time is right for regime change in the to encourage the Islamic Republic.

As a result, 44 years after his father was removed from office, Pahlavi is touring European capitals as part of a campaign to persuade the West to give more support to Iranian protesters who want theocracy replaced by secular democracy.

Supplementing the sanctions already imposed on the republic with actions to “empower” Iranians opposed to the regime would be a big step to “empower them more to exert pressure from within,” Pahlavi said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Such comments reflect the confidence of regime opponents abroad that the massive protests last year following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini have changed the dynamics in Iran. It also underlined how they hoped to shape Western policy.

Reza Pahlavi: ‘We try to do all this in the context of non-violent and civil disobedience without having to resort to violence or foreign intervention’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

Pahlavi, 62, attended the Munich security conference last month, while Iranian officials were not invited. He then met legislators in London, Paris and Brussels.

Pahlavi, who has not returned to Iran since 1978, when he left at age 17 to study in the US, said there were opportunities for “high-level” encounters before, but the difference now was that people were involved . “After 43 years, the world is starting to say we better start talking to people who are part of the solution and the alternative.”

Protests have subsided, but as Iran faces increasing social and economic pressure, opponents of the republic predict further cycles of unrest. Buoyed by internal calls for regime change, Pahlavi and others in the diaspora are drafting a charter to prepare for a “transition” should the theocracy collapse.

After decades of deep division within a diaspora that usually showed little appetite for political activity, Pahlavi and other opposition figures abroad have amplified their voices to unprecedented levels on the international stage.

It is partly due to the nature and size of the protests, which have posed the regime’s biggest threat in years. This coincided with escalating tensions between Iran and the west, which were partly due to Tehran’s crackdown on the demonstrators, as well as its decision to sell drones to Russia used in its war against Ukraine.

A protester holds a photo of Reza Pahlavi
A protester holds a photo of Reza Pahlavi at a rally against the current Iranian regime and in support of Pahlavi © Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/Sipa US/Reuters

Pahlavi is the eldest son of the late Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who spent four decades trying to modernize Iran as a shah with the support of the US. But many Iranians felt alienated by his western development, corruption and autocratic rule, culminating in the tumultuous events that brought down his dynasty.

Today, many Iranians remain skeptical of the overseas opposition and Pahlavi, arguing that they lack credible leaders and are removed from ordinary people and the republic’s pro-democracy activists. There are questions about their level of support in the country. Some say the diaspora’s activities favor a regime eager to blame its foreign enemies for the unrest.

“The [overseas] opposition is more relevant than before because of the impact they have on domestic politics in the countries where they live, but their agenda is not always the same as that of internal activists,” said Ali Vaez, an analyst at Crisis Group, a think tank. “Their own intolerance and power struggles have contributed to concerns.”

Analysts say the newly elevated role of Pahlavi and others in the diaspora also exposed a weakness in the opposition: the lack of clear leadership inside or outside Iran. “There are so many people with capabilities and potential, but it is difficult to identify a single person who can generate and gather support, especially in Iran,” said Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House.

Pahlavi insisted he interacted with activists in Iran and reflected their views. His goal was to convince the west to do more to help Iranians get around internet restrictions and to raise money to support striking workers, believing that labor unrest would “paralyze the system”.

“We try to do all this in the context of non-violent and civil disobedience, without resorting to violence or foreign intervention,” he said. Opposition members called for general strikes during the protests, a tactic that helped loosen the Shah’s grip on power in 1979, but it was largely ignored.

In Iran, analysts and diplomats say that among the activist diaspora, which includes actors, journalists and footballers, Pahlavi has a certain status as the son of the last shah. Yet his parentage is also seen as a weakness as many remember the autocratic nature of his father’s regime.

“Nobody disputes what happened in history,” Pahlavi said. “I had no responsibility in the previous regime, I had the title of crown prince, but no one holds me responsible for that.”

Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, with his third wife, Farah Diba, and their son, Reza, in ceremonial dress before the throne
Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi with his parents, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and Farah Diba © Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

Pahlavi, whose supporters still refer to him as “His Majesty,” is unclear if he wants to see a return to monarchy. He said he would “withdraw myself from this debate, so I’m not in favor of one or the other”.

His task was to build a “coalition of political organizations”. [and] groups” and prepare for what happens when the regime falls. When asked if he saw himself as a transition leader, he replied, “That’s what people want me to play as a role; monarchists or republicans.”

He added: “My mission in life will end the day people go to the polls and choose their future system.”

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