WASHINGTON — Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the former shah of Iran, called on the United States to back nonviolent regime change in Iran, rather than pressure the Islamic Republic to cease its support for militant proxy groups, ballistic missile tests and human rights repression at home.
Dressed in a navy blue suit and striped tie, the Maryland-based Pahlavi, 59, told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy today that it was only a matter of time before Iran’s regime collapses. What he is seeking, he said, is to expand a dialogue with frustrated people inside and outside of Iran and opposition forces to help manage a “controlled implosion” of the old regime and transition to a pluralist, secular democracy, one in which Iran would naturally be an ally of the United States and Israel as well as Arab nations.
“The Islamic Republic cannot be reformed,” Pahlavi told the think tank, which has provided numerous officials serving in the current Donald Trump administration. “A secular, democratic Iran may be achieved only through nonviolent means. The Iranian people will be the principal agents of this change. But international attention and support remain critical.”
The issue is not “whether there will be regime collapse or not. That is a given,” Pahlavi said.
“We have an opportunity here to control the outcome, to make sure it does not end up in the wrong hands.”
Pahlavi insisted that no military action or US troops should be considered to hasten the collapse of Iran’s regime. Rather, he said he would encourage the kind of moral, financial and political support the West gave to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the Solidarity labor movement in Poland to pressure the Soviet Union.
“No Iranian has asked any American to come fight our war,” Pahlavi said. “No. But we do expect the world to be cognizant of the facts. … Seldom have we witnessed civil disobedience succeed without some degree of support from the free world.”
“We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” Pahlavi quoted the late US civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to make the point, that the United States should not engage the current Iranian government or ask it to change its behavior, but rather stand with those opposing it.
As for specific policy changes Pahlavi wanted to see from the US government, his recommendations — beyond don’t try to work with the current Iranian government to try to achieve any compromise or reforms — were vague. He expressed concern that draconian US sanctions on Iran’s banking sector actually made it hard for pro-democratic Iranians to get financial support from the diaspora and to organize. He also complained that US and UK government-funded media that broadcast into Iran, like Radio Farda, the Voice of America and the BBC Persian service, were, as he claimed, infiltrated by Iranian Reformists — those who thought the Iranian regime could be moderated and engaged — rather than those who insisted it needed to be overthrown wholesale.
Regarding what role he sees for himself, Pahlavi described himself as not political, but rather trying to plan for and help lead a transition from the collapse of the Islamic Republic that would be inclusive, tolerant and stable. Eventually, the transition would make way for democratic elections that would choose a parliament to write a new Iranian constitution guaranteeing equality for all Iranians, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender. When those elections are held, his role would be done, Pahlavi said.
“He wants to be Queen Elizabeth, not his grandfather,” Patrick Clawson, the vice president for research at the Washington Institute and long-time Iran watcher, told Al-Monitor.
“His popularity has soared and soared and soared the past two years (without any effort on his part and despite some self-sabotage),” Pooya Dayanim, a Los Angeles-based Iranian American activist who has known Pahlavi for 27 years, told Al-Monitor.
Pahlavi said he would welcome a dialogue with members of the Trump administration on his ideas for Iran. Perhaps most surprisingly, given how aggressively antagonistic the Trump administration has been toward the Islamic Republic, Pahlavi suggested he had not been invited to have such discussions yet with the Trump administration, though he has spoken with members of Congress.
“If the administration is prepared to talk, that’s great,” Pahlavi said. “I would welcome the opportunity … to discuss who the administration should talk to in … and outside of Iran.”
But there are risks for both the Iranian diaspora opposition and the Trump administration to draw too closely together, especially as the Trump administration has tilted so far in its support of Iran’s regional foes like Saudi Arabia, said Iran analyst Ali Vaez.
“There is still no official link or a money trail between the Trump administration and Iranian opposition groups,” Vaez said. “But in the process of using platforms associated with Iran's regional foes to delegitimize the Islamic Republic, the opposition risks delegitimizing itself in the eyes of a highly nationalistic Iranian population.”
Asked by Al-Monitor if he had considered calling for a dialogue with the Iranian regime, Pahlavi said it was the Iranian regime that would refuse to engage.
“This regime refuses to have any dialogue [with anyone] outside those who think like them,” Pahlavi said.
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