Trump’s anti-Iran push boosts a royal outcast

Nahal Toosi – Politico Dec 14, 2018

Soon after President Donald Trump was elected, his National Security Council aides considered trying an unusual new approach to Iran.

Officials wondered whether Trump should record a dramatic video message congratulating the Iranian people on their new year. The twist? Trump would appear alongside an Iranian royal who lives quietly in the Washington area: Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the country’s late shah, the U.S.-allied leader toppled during Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The NSC officials decided against the idea, which was described by two people familiar with the episode, and Trump instead issued a traditional statement of goodwill for the Iranian holiday, known as Now-Ruz.

At the time, pairing Trump with Pahlavi might have struck many Iran-watchers in the U.S. as an absurd idea. Pahlavi’s father was a deeply unpopular figure in Iran when he was overthrown, and his close ties to Washington was a particular source of anger at the time.

Two years later, however, Iran analysts say Pahlavi’s credibility within the country has grown as Trump has imposed harsh sanctions which some believe are meant to bring down its clerical government — begging the question of who would lead Iran if that happens. And in a sign that he welcomes higher visibility, Pahlavi will give a rare speech at a Washington think tank on Friday.

Back in Iran, Pahlavi’s family is enjoying something of a comeback. Iranian protesters are chanting apologies to the royal clan, who ruled for 54 years. Satellite TV stations that manage to evade Iran’s censors are celebrating the monarchy’s pre-revolutionary heyday, which many Iranians are too young to remember. Some Iranians are even treating the possible discovery of Pahlavi’s grandfather’s body earlier this year as an omen of his family’s return to power.

Pahlavi’s remarks Friday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy will focus on Iran’s future; he also will engage in a question-and-answer session. It’s an unusually high-profile event for Pahlavi, who, according to an institute official, sought out the opportunity. And it could mark an important moment for the notoriously fragmented Iranian opposition 40 years after the country’s revolution.

“There’s a nostalgia for the monarchy because people view it as a better time,” said Alireza Nader, founder of the New Iran Foundation, a research group. “There are signs of genuine support for Pahlavi, and he can capitalize on it.”

The Iranian regime and its supporters essentially dismiss him as a corrupt wannabe with little support in Iran, while spreading allegations that he is funded by Saudi and Israeli money. (Pahlavi’s office would not answer questions about these allegations.)

Pahlavi, who is 58, is not openly calling for the restoration of the Peacock Throne to Iran. His official biography describes him instead as “a leader and advocate of the principles of freedom, democracy and human rights for his countrymen.” He casts himself more as a symbol than a politician, although he did say in an interview last year that he is “ready to serve my country.”

He appears to have become a rallying point for a still-emerging movement within the Iranian opposition that is trying to go beyond the traditional divides.

This movement dismisses both the hardline and reformist factions in Iran as part of the same oppressive theocratic machinery. It also appears distinct from monarchist, communist and other groups that have sought the mantle of the opposition’s leadership over the years – including the once-militant Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK.

One newly established network representing this movement is Farashgard, or Iran Revival. In an open letter, the group says its goal is “to overthrow the Islamic Republic and to establish in its place a secular democracy that safeguards each Iranian’s human rights.”

The group recognizes “the key role that Prince Reza Pahlavi plays in connecting all segments of the Iranian society.” It adds: “In replacing the current regime with a democratic and secular state, his leadership and influence can facilitate a smooth transition and ensure peace, order, national unity, and the territorial integrity of Iran.”

Pahlavi’s office did not respond to a question about the exact nature of his ties, if any, to Farashgard. The group did not reply to a request for comment sent to its main email account, but a member said Pahlavi is supportive of their effort.

While a number of Trump’s advisers have well-paid links to the MEK — whose complicated history includes having been previously designated by the United States as a terrorist group — it’s not clear whether administration members are in touch with Pahlavi.

A State Department official would not directly answer a question about this, saying only that top U.S. officials have “met with many members of the Iranian diaspora.”

Pahlavi was not available for an interview. But in past remarks and online, Pahlavi says he has reached out to Trump. In one letter, which he posted on his Twitter feed, Pahlavi urged Trump to “bear in mind the aspiration of the Iranian people.”

Luckily for Pahlavi and his popularity, Trump appears intent on isolating, if not outright overthrowing, the regime in Iran.

The Republican administration has pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, imposed sanctions on Tehran and is pushing an information campaign against the country, calling out its clerical rulers for corruption and incompetence. It has made 12 demands of Iran that are so far-reaching that some experts say they are a disguised call for regime change.

At the same time, unrest inside Iran has galvanized people in both the Trump administration and the pro-Pahlavi crowd. The dissension has taken several forms, including labor protests that some opposition activists hope can morph into something more coherent over time.

Many of the protests took place in December 2017 and January 2018, but there are still reports of occasional demonstrations.

Some protesters have approvingly shouted the one-time crown prince’s name, while some have invoked the defunct monarchy while yelling, “We are sorry.” In one video, demonstrators shouted: “Iran without a shah has no accountability!”

Some protestors also praised Pahlavi’s grandfather, Reza Shah, who remains a respected figure in Iran for many of the modernizing reforms he introduced.

Earlier this year, a well-preserved body possibly belonging to Reza Shah was discovered near the mausoleum where he had been buried. The tomb was destroyed after the revolution as Islamists tried to erase Iran’s monarchical history.

The body’s discovery had some Iranians thinking it was a sign. “We Iranians are superstitious, and I personally believe his return is a message,” an Iranian merchant told The New York Times.

Some of the royal nostalgia in Iran is driven by satellite channels beamed into the country and popular among many of its 80 million people. One in particular, named Manoto (“me and you”) has a distinctive pro-Pahlavi bent.

The London-based channel, launched in 2010, produces programming that often casts the era of the shah as a glorious, freer time. Thanks to its use of archival Iranian footage, the programs show an Iran where women went unveiled and the country was more accepted by the international community.

The pro-Pahlavi crowd often avoids discussion of the unsavory aspects of the monarchy: the terror perpetuated by the shah’s secret police, the frustration of the poor as they watched the royals flaunt their wealth, the anger of devout Muslims at a leader they deemed intoxicated by the West.

“If Reza Pahlavi wants to be a leader on the basis of his family ties, he first needs to address the dark sides and the repression of his father and grandfather’s era,” said Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American journalist and political commentator.

Other Iran observers note that the Middle East has not always been well-served by its exiles, with Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi who pressed the U.S. to invade Iraq, often cited as the prime example. (Pahlavi is not advocating for such an approach.)

Still, “if you’re an Iranian who believes that meaningful reform of the Islamic Republic has proven an exercise in futility over the last 40 years, then you naturally begin to look for leaders outside the system,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Anecdotes aside, it’s impossible to gauge how widespread support for the royals truly is inside Iran, where the government stifles freedom of speech and opinion polls are not reliable.

Much of the pro-Pahlavi conversation is driven by Iranians who left the country in recent years utterly disillusioned with the reformist versus hardliner dichotomy that has long characterized the framing of Iranian politics. The timing for Pahlavi is also fortuitous given Trump’s hostility toward Iran’s government.

“He is just kind of the man of the moment, and the moment suits for an ambiguous figure who might have appeal across various political strata,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran analyst with the Brookings Institution.

Pahlavi was in the United States for jet-fighter training in the late 1970s when a popular movement of many strains threatened the rule of his father, Mohammad Reza Shah.

The shah was dying of cancer when President Jimmy Carter admitted him into the U.S. for medical treatment, further inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment among Iranian revolutionaries. The shah died in 1980 in Egypt, where he is buried, and the young prince declared himself Iran’s new ruler: Reza Shah II. It was not to be.

In the 40 years since, Reza Pahlavi has lived mainly in the United States, his profile waxing and waning depending on a variety of factors, including his own willingness to speak out and the position of the U.S. government toward Iran.

In a 1989 profile, The Washington Post cast Pahlavi as a young man with vague notions about the role he should play, an ambiguity that still hasn’t fully receded. He has “lived in a suspended animation of the kind that pretenders to thrones must feel even while much of the world considers their pretensions laughable,” the Post wrote.

“I’m not in this for monarchy. I’m in this for the freedom of my countrymen and for popular sovereignty,” he told the Post.

Pahlavi, who earned a degree in political science from the University of Southern California, has studied and supports non-violent civil disobedience movements, viewing leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as role models.

He is thought to live mainly on what’s left of his family wealth, his only full-time job being speaking out about Iran.

Pahlavi’s wife, Yasmine, recently went public about her battle with breast cancer, drawing many messages of support but also questions about whether she was trying to aid her husband politically. The couple has three daughters.

Over the past four decades, Pahlavi has never fully faded from the public eye, writing books and keeping in touch with foreign officials across the world. He kept a relatively low profile during President Barack Obama’s nuclear talks with Iran, and offered guarded support for the deal Obama struck with Tehran lifting sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.

Shortly after Trump was inaugurated, Pahlavi gave an interview to Breitbart News, a conservative news outlet linked to one of Trump’s advisers. It signaled that Pahlavi would be more outspoken.

Pahlavi stressed to Breitbart that the fate of Iran must rest in the hands of its people.

“The day that we have free elections will be the day I will consider my political mission in life accomplished,” he said. “From that day on, I cannot tell you now what the circumstances will be. I’ve always said that I’m ready to serve my country, in whatever capacity that my constituents choose.”

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