by Farhang Jahanpour
After a long period of relative silence, Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed Iranian Shah who has lived in the United States for more than 40 years, recently made a rare public appearance, calling for a U.S.-backed regime change in Iran. Speaking at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Friday, December 14, he called for “non-Military actions” in support of Iranians to replace the Islamic Republic with a secular democracy.
Since coming to office and even during the 2016 election campaign, President Donald Trump has adopted a very hostile attitude towards Iran and the landmark nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) negotiated under President Barack Obama. Some of the more hawkish members of his team have received huge fees speaking at the annual meetings of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) that are held outside Paris, and have openly called for regime change in Iran before the end of 2019.
Reza Pahlavi’s speech was in line with the Trump administration’s policies towards Iran, but he went even further and demanded action to bring about regime change. “You cannot come and say we support the Iranian people but we don’t want regime change,” he said. “How the hell do you want us to get to democracy while this regime is still in place?” His appearance has created great excitement among some sections of the Iranian opposition abroad, who see him as a more viable alternative to the clerical regime than the MEK, which is seen as a terrorist organization and hated by most Iranians. Could Reza Pahlavi play a role in ushering in regime change in Iran? What might that role be?
Whether we like it or not, the fall of Mohammad Reza Shah’s government and the establishment of the Islamic Republic was not due to a military coup, as in Egypt, or a foreign coup, such as the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq’s popular government. As someone who lived in Iran and witnessed the early stages of the revolution, it was clear to me, as it will be to anyone who has studied the history of the revolution, that it was a mass movement. Millions of people rose up against the government and demanded fundamental change, to such an extent that the Shah’s powerful military collapsed in the face of mainly bloodless nationwide demonstrations, strikes and, some terrorist and paramilitary activities mainly perpetrated by the members of the MEK.
The initial slogans of the Iranian revolution were “Freedom, Independence, Social Justice”. People wanted to put an end to arbitrary rule and lack of political freedom. They wanted to achieve independence from foreign domination and exploitation, which in their eyes had reduced Iran almost to the status of a US colony. They also wished to establish an economic system that distributed the enormous wealth of the country more equitably.
Sadly, none of those goals has been achieved and, instead, people even lost the degree of social freedom that they enjoyed under the Shah. As a result, there is a certain amount of nostalgia for the olden times. In several recent protests, people have chanted slogans in favour of Reza Shah, presumably as a king who opposed and suppressed the clerics.
However, this does not mean that there is any likelihood of the return of the Pahlavis to power. As we say in Persian, “that jug has smashed and the wine has spilt.” Or in more poetic language, “that mighty torrent that has swept down the mountain, its return to the summit is most unlikely.” Nearly 40 years since the fall of the Shah, it is time for U.S. politicians to understand and admit that fact. Any lasting change in Iran will and should come from within, even though U.S. neocons and their Israeli and Saudi backers wish otherwise. Unlike most countries in the region, there has been a measure of public participation in politics in Iran, and elections have had an enormous effect on changing the Iranian government. This is why, for better or worse, most people in Iran believe that they own the system, and it has also given them a measure of independence, completely unlike those regimes that, in the words or President Trump, cannot survive for ten days without U.S. support.
Many educated Iranians once had a very positive outlook towards the United States, but U.S. policies during the past few decades have completely alienated most Iranians. This feeling of hostility has been greatly strengthened as the result of the policies pursued by President Trump and the extremist members of his team. President Trump cannot on the one hand bar Iranians from visiting the United States, prevent Iranian students from studying in US universities, deprive Iranian grandparents from attending the weddings of their grandchildren, impose unilateral sanctions on Iran, and even deprive Iranians from buying medicine abroad due to banking restrictions, and on the other hand still claim that he is on the side of the Iranian people.
Iranians also look at the outcome of U.S. policies in the Middle East and beyond. During the past few decades, rivers of blood have flowed in practically all Middle Eastern countries, particularly in Iran’s neighbours, while despite all this bloodshed and barbarity, the West has not been able to establish freedom and democracy in the Middle East. On the contrary, it has destroyed what had formed the basis of some of the oldest civilizations in the world, leaving behind ruins in ancient Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and many other countries. The US government also supported Saddam Hussein’s brutal invasion of Iran. In the process of militarisation, invasions and massacres, the West has also lost its soul, and its ideals and aspirations have also been diminished.
Both under President Khatami and President Rouhani, Iran extended a hand of friendship to the West. The Iranian government engaged in difficult negotiations andsigned a landmark agreement, not only with the United States, but with all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. The agreement also received the unanimous endorsement of the Security Council Resolution 2231 and the European Union. That agreement, unique in the history of nuclear negotiations, drastically curtailed Iran’s nuclear activities and blocked all the paths to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran. In 12 reports, the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly certified Iran’s full compliance with the terms of the agreement. Yet, against the almost unanimous international support for the JCPOA, President Trump unilaterally withdrew from that deal and imposed extraterritorial sanctions on Iran. Under these circumstances, any U.S. support for any person or opposition group, particularly the hated MEK, would be the kiss of death.
The best thing that Reza Pahlavi can do is to persuade the Trump administration to give up its insane and excessive hostility towards Iran, reverse its violation of the JCPOA, engage in serious multilateral negotiations on other matters of contention, and help the advancement of democracy, human rights and a strong middle class in Iran through greater engagement and economic development. Then, when the time is ripe, Reza Pahlavi can take part in elections in Iran and hopefully be elected to office on the basis of the goodwill that exists towards his father and grandfather.