Reza Pahlavi, 41, whose father was ousted as Shah of Iran in the Islamic revolution of 1979, is trying to transform his native country -- from the outside. Based in the U.S., he appears on satellite radio and TV shows that are beamed into Iran, during which he calls for nonviolent civil disobedience aimed at toppling the mullahs and putting Iran on a path to secular democracy. The way forward, he says, is a referendum to decide whether Iran should be run as a constitutional monarchy -- which he could lead as Shah -- or a republic.
Pahlavi is a controversial figure for Iranians and political analysts inside and outside the country. "He is irrelevant to the process. No one takes him seriously," says Nasser Hadian, a professor of law and politics at the University of Tehran.
However, says Gary Sick, director of Columbia University's Middle East Institute, "his name has become more prominent recently because of real dissatisfaction across the board in the Islamic Republic." Adds Azar Nafisi, an Iranian-born professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies: "He can play an important role in calling for a form of unity."
Pahlavi's strategy is to appeal mainly to the youth of Iran, who represent 60% of the country's population. Many are discontented because they want more social freedoms and fear for their future. Without economic reform and foreign investment, the stagnant Iranian economy can't provide enough jobs for the graduates entering the workforce each year.
It's an advantage for Pahlavi that Iran's young people don't remember the last Shah's repressive regime. He admits that his father erred by clamping down on democratic freedoms, though he doesn't criticize him harshly. Pahlavi recently visited BusinessWeek in New York to discuss his vision of Iran's future with European Editor Patricia Kranz and Senior Writer Rose Brady. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: How do you view your role?
A: My name recognition is critical in Iran. I have significant political capital. I see my role as a catalyst, as a person who can provide a forum. I can help opposition forces come together and work on a common agenda.
Q: Do you want to be the Shah of Iran?
A: I am not looking for a job. But I have a mission. My political mission in life is to take Iran to the day of the referendum that will decide its future. What Iranians want to do with me after, they will have to decide then. We aim at implementing a secular democracy in Iran, but it has to be a participatory process.
Q: Why are you making this push now?
A: I sense that Iranians today have been heartened by the fact that their own compatriots have braved dangers and stood up to the regime -- by holding candlelight vigils [in support of America after September 11] or what have you. And the world is finally willing to listen. When President Reagan in the 1980s said to Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, "Tear down that [Berlin] Wall," it was the right time. In some similar way, albeit as a result of September 11, the world is saying "bring the nonsense [in the Islamic Republic of Iran] to an end."
Q: How quickly can you achieve change?
A: The window of opportunity is not that long. It's the next couple of years. This population is not going to put up with its frustrations any longer. They need to channel them into something constructive.
Q: So how will you help to change Iran?
A: The essence of my strategy is nonviolent civil disobedience. I don't believe in violence, and violence does not translate into democratic results. A lot depends on communication. The key is the organized opposition inside Iran. The process is going to generate its own [leaders]. The important thing is to help -- with high-tech support in terms of equipment that can be useful in communication. And financial support.
Q: Do you think people in Iran take you seriously?
A: I believe that a great number of people that may seem interested in preserving the regime are in fact interested in change. But they are concerned about what will happen to them. We have to provide an exit strategy for them -- for clerics, revolutionary guards, bureaucrats. We speak to them by phone, fax, and e-mail. We know they cannot take the initiative. But if there is sufficient momentum, they can join [us] or at least remain neutral.