Royalty in Exile


Loyal followers address him as Alahazrat, or “majesty.” Other expatriates simply call him “mister.”

Reza Pahlavi, son of the late shah of Iran, is a little of both. As a boy he was once adorned in medals and uniforms but now he appears in dark suits and ties, casting himself as an ordinary citizen seeking to unite Iranian opposition groups worldwide.

He has never gone into the strict seclusion of so many deposed royals, but recently he has gone public as never before, even addressing his homeland last month in what aides said was an unprecedented television broadcast.


As part of his mission, the man who crowned himself Shah Reza II in absentia 20 years ago spent the weekend in Beverly Hills wooing the splintered factions to join dissenters back in Iran seeking to overthrow the Islamic regime that deposed his father in 1979.

His mission is not about the past or what mistakes his father made, Pahlavi said in a Monday interview. It’s about being a sharvand, or citizen, and helping young Iranians who have sparked dissent in Iran to achieve the population’s longtime desire for self-rule, first put in writing in 1906 by its first Majlis, or parliament.

“That desire is still there, especially in today’s world,” he said. “I’m very confident what I’m talking about is not an illusion or dream.”

The 40-year-old royal, who like other expatriates of his generation seems as American as he does Iranian, said his ultimate goal is to see a referendum called in his homeland so citizens can decide what form of government they want.

Using the Internet, radio and newly established satellite television networks, Iranian expatriates should put aside their differences, he said, and support the effort of Iranians at home, who ultimately must make the choice for the country’s future.

If they vote for a secular democracy, Pahlavi says he will renounce the throne, conquered 75 years ago by the grandfather he is named after.


Known as ‘Citizen Pahlavi’

And so he came to Los Angeles, to meet with a handpicked collection of supporters and opponents who are among the hundreds of thousands of Iranians--the exact number is unclear--believed to be living in Southern California. The community is considered influential in Iranian expatriate circles, and if he is to sustain support elsewhere, he must secure it here.

Some observers are optimistic about his chances and approve his non-royalist approach. He can carry himself with royal bearing but also play a less imposing role as a soft-spoken man with perfect English and gentle manner.

“Citizen Pahlavi,” as the Iranian, an online expatriate magazine, recently dubbed Reza Pahlavi, may have picked the right moment to launch his campaign of “Today Only Unity,” proponents say. They add that the Iranian economy is a shambles and President Mohammad Khatami and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are jostling for control of Iran and its 67 million people.

“He is the only symbol who can grab this flag and carry it,” said Habib Rowshanzadeh of Newport Beach, an Iranian TV newscaster.

But Pahlavi’s opponents call him a relic who doesn’t stand a chance of ruling Iran as a constitutional monarch or with any other title. Many roll their eyes when asked about what role he can play against the theocracy that drove him and millions of Iranians to leave their country.

“We younger dissidents already get along,” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, a formerly jailed leader of the 1999 student protests in Iran who dined with Pahlavi here Saturday. “He should focus on getting the older generation [and monarchists] to join us. No single person can lead the opposition.”

Several American experts on Iranian politics question Pahlavi’s ability to launch a new revolution.

“The appearance of the crown prince at this particular time is very interesting indeed. It shows there is a very serious power struggle going on in Iran,” said Andrew Hess, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. But “there’s a little bit of unrealism on the part of most people where the internal struggle is concerned. . . . The reality is that Supreme Leader Khamenei is in charge of military forces and a good part of the security forces.”

The economy is largely controlled by hard-line factions, he added. “All of that means there isn’t institutionalized support for [reformers] to succeed easily.”

“I don’t think Iranians are prepared to have a king of any kind,” said Judith Kippler, a Middle East specialist with the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies and Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s all nice in the salons of Los Angeles to talk about this, but I don’t think it resonates in Iran. I think it’s a lost cause, although it never hurts for people to speak up for democracy.”

That, Pahlavi insists, is all he is trying to do.

“The issue today is to listen to what Reza Pahlavi has to say about freedom. This is not about me, this is not about the monarchy. This is about the future of Iran.”

The yearning for outside support was evident in the days after his 20-minute satellite address to Iran last month, he said. His Web site has received tens of thousands of hits for days afterward.

Addressing Iranians as “sisters and brothers,” a phrase once used by Islamic revolutionaries, he encouraged them in the Jan. 12 speech to peacefully dissent through demonstrations, labor strikes and boycotts. The approach is one Pahlavi said he adopted from one of his heroes, Mohandas K. Ghandi, who helped free India from the grasp of British colonial rule.

Pahlavi said he is also moved by American-born Iranians’ commitment to their parents’ homeland, one they’ve never seen.

Still, it’s hard to explain Iran to them, Pahlavi says; the smell of the kababy, where lamb kababs were grilled over open flames, the vendors selling walnuts, the snowcapped peaks of the Alborz range north of Tehran.

A Quiet Life in Maryland

“As an Iranian, I would rather be in my country,” said Pahlavi, who left him homeland in 1978 after graduating from high school. “It makes it for me compelling, this conscience of duty.”

His father was sought by Islamic revolutionaries as a criminal, but the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said Reza Pahlavi was an “innocent” and could return to Iran any time he wanted, the younger Pahlavi recalled. “That is, until you speak out against the government,” he added with a smile.

Today, he resides in quiet comfort in Maryland with his 32-year-old wife, Yasmine Etemad-Amini, and their two daughters, Noor, 8, and Iman, 7. The American-born girls, whose first language is English and who attend private school, are not addressed as “princess,” he said. The girls call him baba, or daddy, and they take Persian language lessons. Still, American influences are inescapable and, like their father, they share a dual identity--even if they have never known Iran as he did as a young prince.

“A year ago, my youngest daughter asked me a question: ‘Baba, if Iran is so dear to us, if you like it so much, how come we’re not there?’ How do you explain to a 6-year-old why we can’t be there?”