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Iran: Reza Pahlavi Talks About Democracy And His Native Iran

Reza Pahlavi (RFE/RL) June 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Reza Pahlavi, the oldest son of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was in Prague this week to participate in a high-profile Security & Democracy Conference that brought together national leaders, influential policy observers, and dissidents and former dissidents. Pahlavi, who has lived in the United States for more than two decades, spoke with Radio Farda's Mosaddegh Katouzian about the dynamics of democracy and his native Iran.

RFE/RL: Some political analysts and historians, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, have said and written that the 21st century is the century in which democracy will triumph world over and is the time for the end of despotic and authoritarian regimes. But in the last year or two, many have shown doubts about whether intervention or outside pressure to establish democracy would bear fruit in all countries to the same extent. What do you think about this issue, considering the recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Reza Pahlavi: Let me remind everyone that Iran is one of the few countries -- if I dare say, the unique country -- in the region that in the span of...a century has witnessed two political revolutions. That's testimony to the fact that Iranians can -- and have, when their will is up to it -- change their systems. There's also a background to this. Iran is not a newly created nation. It's a nation that has existed for centuries. There's a clear sense of national identity; there has been a polity, [and] some degree of civil society, even though tremendously repressed today, but certainly existent and with some degree of previous experience in the past. At the turn of the century, when we had the constitutional revolution, often foreign parliamentarians would refer to Iran as a model of democracy in the early 20th century. That being said, I find it very odd that we could not repeat that a century later, particularly after having experienced a theocracy. In other words, I believe that my fellow compatriots are clearly at the end of that tunnel; and with the collective experiences, especially of the past century, they're certainly well poised and well placed to negotiate a democratic alternative. The question, therefore, is not whether or not they could be ready or capable of it. The only obstacle is the current regime, which needs to be replaced with a secular democracy, with a constitution that is based on the universal declaration of human rights.

RFE/RL: We can extend this issue by looking into a current debate regarding the desirability and viability of "regime change" in countries with undemocratic regimes. Supporters of an Iranian "regime change" are not few. Setting aside the accepted cliche, which says that "a nation's fate should be determined by that nation's people," do you think implementing regime change in Iran or any other country is viable and acceptable? Do you think a new regime established through foreign intervention and pressure would face a legitimation crisis, or do you believe the new world order has created new realities also in this regard?

Pahlavi: I suppose that if you were to ask this question of nations that once were behind the so-called Iron Curtain at the time of the Soviet Empire -- whether or not their current governments that came to power as a result of foreign assistance, but was done at their hands, whether or not they're legitimate -- I think the answer is clear. If it was based on the will and desire of those nations, whether or not it was helped from the outside is not the relevant point. The relevant point is whether it is what they desire. Because if people disagree with the outcome, no system can claim legitimacy if it goes against the will of the people. The issue is whether or not the people want it, not whether or not it was helped from outside or not. However, clearly I think that the best way that the free world can help is not to necessarily do the job for them, but do it through them. In other words, empower those people, empower those nations, help them in every way so they can achieve that goal. And endorse their desire for freedom. In that, I don't see any incompatibility or lack of legitimacy.

RFE/RL: Would this also translate into the viability of a military option?

Pahlavi: This is precisely why I have always opposed any kind of intervention of a military kind. Because I think there is a third way, which is much less costly and certainly more legitimate, and that is to invest in the people of Iran themselves. I've always stated that the world has as its best ally in place the people of Iran, who for years have been asking for freedom but who keep saying to the world for 28 years: "You've pretty much ignored us, you've only talked to our oppressors, you always try to negotiate or cut a deal with our oppressors. You've never bothered to talk to us directly. Isn't it time to engage with us? Isn't it time to invest in us? We'll do the fight. We'll go save ourselves and free ourselves, but we need your support in two ways: Help us and also put every pressure that you can on this regime. Let's force it to retreat and ultimately collapse." This is the least costly and most legitimate way of doing this, as opposed to exploring other avenues and options that are far more controversial and certainly less desirable.

RFE/RL: You are in a country that has coined the phrase "velvet revolution." Would the recent sensitivity of Iran's Islamic republic [that] its information ministry and its judiciary shows to this concept have an effect on the strategy of nonviolent peaceful resistance and civil disobedience -- the discourse you as an opposition leader have suggested?

Pahlavi: Again, let me emphasize why I believe it's important to have the basis of nonviolence and civil disobedience as the main strategy for our fight. Because you're hitting at the regime's vulnerability point. What will ultimately do this regime away is strong and very broad solidarity of the Iranian people, represented via different sectors of society and in their struggle to resist against this regime via demonstrations, labor strikes, and what have you. Workers, women, students, academics, writers, ethnic groups, and what have you can all play their part. But it's not only that. In my projection, one has to think of the future in maximizing the degree of people who can transition to the next system. There are many people who are "stuck in this system," who are working in different entities; they're not responsible. They would like to have some kind of survivability after this regime. I'm thinking of many elements of the military or paramilitary forces. What will become of them if the regime were to change? Do they have a place in the future? Of course they should. Should we not have a strategy based on the experience we saw successfully in South Africa of some kind of a reconciliation or amnesty project? Put an end to this cycle of violence by forever banning political executions. Should we not lay the grounds to end the cycle of violence and ask for reconciliation? This has to also be part of our strategy. And that lends itself much better in scenarios of nonviolence as opposed to any other scenarios that I know of.

RFE/RL: At Prague's Security & Democracy Conference, you reportedly expressed your view on the challenges of introducing Western-style democracy in countries in which religion and society, Islam and politics, are deeply intertwined. Could you expand on your analysis of Iran as far as this issue is concerned?

Pahlavi: You know, when I think of the very tenets of Shi'ism, I have been taught in the past that one of the principle foundations of Shi'ism is based on the fact that divine government on earth can only be possible until the time that the 12th imam would reappear -- and until then it is not the realm or the duty of the clerics to govern. What this regime is claiming goes against the very grain and the very principles of Shi'ism. As such, it is very clear that the majority of the clerics who have objected to this have been either eliminated or have been incarcerated or under house arrest and basically [are] being antagonized. The desire for separation of religion from government is not just an obvious prerequisite for democracy -- and it has been proven around the globe -- but it is even the desire of our traditional clergy, because they know that this is not only part of what they themselves believe in. But as a result of such a clerical regime, the biggest damage has been done to religion itself and to the interests of the clerical establishment. So not only will it serve the best purpose for the sake of democracy in our homeland, but I think it also represents the best interest of the clerical establishment itself. And therefore, again, I think we can have a solution for that in the future, which doesn't go against either of these interests.

The Iranian Revolution

The Iranian Revolution
Iranians demonstrate in Tehran on February 10, 1979, shortly after the return to Iran of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (epa)

THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC: Iran's 1979 revolution ended 2,500 years of monarchy and established the world's first modern theocracy. In February 2004, on the 25th anniversary of that event, RFE/RL produced a special report on how the ensuing years have measured up to the expectations of those times.

"I had been freed from jail in those days, and I hoped that the [revolutionary] forces would bring democracy and progress for the country, despite the religious leadership that caused some doubts, I hoped that the press would be free, the books would be published without censorship, [political] parties, associations and civil society organizations would be formed, and I hoped that I would be able to write freely. In fact, in these 25 years, I have not seen anything but the death and silencing of those beautiful hopes and dreams," Faraj Sarkouhi, an exiled writer and journalist, told RFE/RL....(more)


RFE/RL's reporting on Iran.

A tank bearing a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini takes up a position in Tehran on February 12, 1979 (epa)