Washington Sketch: The Shah's Son Offers His Services to Iran

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It seems somewhat unlikely that a resident of Potomac will be the next ruler of Iran. But Reza Pahlavi, son of the shah and the country's former crown prince, is not ruling out anything.

As Tehran's streets fill with death-to-the-dictator chants, Pahlavi went to the National Press Club yesterday and, in front of 17 television cameras, said he would serve if elected.

"My sole objective is to help my compatriots reach freedom," Pahlavi said. But if and when that happens, he went on, "I'd like to be able to be in my country one day, come behind such a podium, talk to my people and every other candidate . . . let the people decide."

Whatever the Iranian demonstrators are seeking, there is little evidence from their Twitter feeds that they are seeking the restoration of the monarchy -- and Pahlavi, who was a teenager getting flight training in Texas during the Islamic revolution, was shrewd enough not to propose it. "This is not about restitution of an institution," he said. But should a democratic Iran "choose to have me play a more prominent role," he added, "let that be their choice."

That will be for another day. Yesterday, the 48-year-old son of a dictator was merely voicing his hopes that what his countrymen have begun over the last 10 days will become a revolution. "However, I often don't use the word 'revolution,' because I think revolution has a very negative connotation in everybody's collective memory."

Particularly Pahlavi's. His family had lived a life of great extravagance until Ayatollah Khomenei deposed the shah in 1979, a year after Jimmy Carter hailed the monarch as "an island of stability." Even yesterday, the former crown prince was defensive about those days. "They had orders not to hit -- fire on people," he said of his father's troops, who, whatever their orders, managed to kill thousands.

The Pahlavi family's love of the ballot box also is somewhat recent; his father, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was installed in a CIA coup in 1953 in place of Iran's democratically elected government. But the younger Pahlavi spoke yesterday of the good old days of his father's rein. Before he came out to speak, somebody fiddled with the Iranian flag behind him to reveal the pre-revolution lion symbol. Pahlavi talked about how, under his father, Iran would have had nuclear fuel and reactors by 1983. "The regime is responsible for us having lost that right, and only them," he said.

Still, there could be no doubting the former crown prince's passion. As he spoke of Iran's "cry for freedom and democracy," he was himself, within minutes, crying for his beloved country. "No one -- no one -- will benefit from closing his or her eyes to knives and cables cutting into faces of mouths, of our young and old," he said, and then, choking up, he took a sip of water. "Or from bullets piercing our beloved Neda," he went on, before a sob escaped his mouth at the mention of the girl shot in the protests. Some in the audience applauded to buy him time as he took out a handkerchief to wipe his face. Finally, gripping the lectern determinedly, he vowed that "a movement was born" that "will not rest until it achieves unfettered democracy and human rights in Iran."

The exiled prince accused Iran's supreme ruler of "an ugly moment of disrespect for both God and man," and he spoke, perhaps a bit prematurely, of "this sinking Titanic that the regime is." The Revolutionary Guard Corps, he claimed, is becoming sympathetic to the demonstrators. "This is well beyond elections now," the optimistic exile said. "The moment of truth has arrived in Iran."

Pahlavi scheduled his appearance at the press club last week, before President Obama toughened up his position toward Iran on Saturday. That left Pahlavi in the position of criticizing Obama's initial hands-off response but praising his statement on Saturday demanding a halt to Iran's "violent and unjust actions against its own people." "I think that he is catching up to what some of his colleagues across the Atlantic who were more forceful in statements have said earlier," he said, adding that "if President Obama himself is showing more connectivity in language and tone with the streets of Iran, that is certainly a good progress."

But, the prince wanted to know, "is the world community prepared to take the next step?" He warned of genocide, of another Tiananmen Square, of terrorism and higher energy prices, and worse: "fanatical tyrants who know that the future is against them may end their present course on their terms -- a nuclear holocaust."

Luckily, Pahlavi had a solution: himself. While he said repeatedly that he is not running for any office, he also spoke of his "supporters" and even his "platform" of human rights for his homeland.

"People support me because of the very fact that we are talking the same language: freedom, democracy, human rights," the shah's son said. "I'm not demanding people to support me today because of me. I'm demanding people to support me so that I can best serve them achieve what their goal is, which is achieve freedom."

If anybody can "demand" support in the cause of democracy, it might as well be the crown prince.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company