Iran is being convulsed by its worst unrest for 40 years, with cities across the country paralyzed by thousands of anti-government protesters.
Though sparked by a spike in fuel prices, the explosion of anger has been a long time coming. Iranians are living under an authoritarian regime while battling falling living standards and a faltering economy, exacerbated by crippling American sanctions levied to stifle Tehran’s nuclear program and regional influence.
Hundreds—perhaps more than 1,000 according to U.S. authorities—of dissenters have been cut down in the streets by regime gunmen. Human rights groups accuse the authorities of hiding away the bodies of the dead to conceal the true death toll while throttling internet to prevent survivors communicating with each other and the world.
According to Reza Pahlavi—the last surviving son and heir of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, deposed in the Iranian Revolution—the reported “massacre” shows the desperation and ruthlessness of the regime.
Pahlavi spoke to Newsweek from Washington, D.C., where he still lives in exile after his family fled the country in 1979. He has consistently called for a secular democracy to replace the current system.
Pahlavi said the current turmoil is indicative of widespread anger at the government in Tehran, and that the only solution is a rehabilitated secular democracy—whether or not he is directly involved.
How should we characterize the current unrest in Iran?
The protests in our country are driven by a broad-based, grassroots desire to replace this regime. The 200 percent rise in fuel prices may have been the trigger of this latest round of widespread national street protests, but this does not come close to capturing the essence or aspirations of what they have become.
These protests represent a rejection of the regime as a whole and communicate a desire to end forty years of clerical oppression. All one has to do to understand this is to listen to my compatriots in the streets.
They do not chant for reforms, or about fuel prices, they chant, “We don’t want the Islamic Republic!” and, “Khamenei, get out of the country!” and by the hundreds they are giving their lives for the cause of freedom.
What does the response of the security forces tell us about the priorities and mindset of those in power?
We have known for forty years that the regime’s only priorities are safeguarding and expanding its own power and control, including enriching itself. This massacre is not surprising. It is rather what one expects when such a regime feels threatened.
Simultaneously, we are witnessing the beginning of a peeling away of the security forces from the regime. As a result, the Islamic Republic is forced to import foreign nationals to attempt to control the protests.
This simply shows that the regime will stop at nothing to protect itself, even at the cost of an effective genocide. Yet despite all this, the people are still fighting. The message they give me to tell the world is, “We deserve better than this. Why are you abandoning us?”
What should replace the current regime in Iran?
For four decades I have consistently advocated for a secular, democratic system in Iran. Not only have I advocated this for Iran because it is the best way to ensure the human rights, well-being, and happiness of Iranians but also because it is my sense that the Iranian people overwhelmingly want and demand such a system.
Today’s generation of young Iranians, more than ever, are aware of other countries where sovereignty is routine in their liberal and free societies. They would like to have the very same opportunities and self-determination.
Is there any legitimate opposition in Iran that can be trusted in this regard? U.S. officials have previously pushed for the involvement of controversial groups such as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran—how do you feel about this?
It is less a matter of how I feel and more about fundamental truths. Our national aspiration is to have a secular democracy and therefore the people of Iran will decide what groups, parties, or individuals are relevant and constructive to our nation’s future. The future of Iran is to be decided by Iranians, not by any foreign leader’s advisors.
Would you like to return to Iran and be involved in a political process to establish a new system of governance?
I view my role as the advocate of the Iranian people. My aspirations are to support the movement for liberty and dignity and are not driven by any ambition for political power in Iran’s future.
That said, I am eager to return to Iran and I will always be there for our people to defend their fundamental and inalienable rights against any and all forces foreign or domestic. I intend to be of assistance in any way that I can to provide proper guidance in our nation’s critical transition to a secular democracy.
Do you think the Iranian people would welcome the return of royal influence?
The future system of government will be subject to intense debate in the constitutional process. It is this process, these democratic mores, on which I am focused and not on the future system of government.
Our country has of course, apart from this forty year interlude, a history of monarchic service and tradition. So naturally many Iranians, in line with this history and culture, have an affinity for the monarchy.
But the present moment is not about monarchy or republic, it is about the fight to reclaim our nation from an anti-Iranian occupying force and to develop this democratic order along with all of its principles, tenets, and values.
What do you think of the current U.S. “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran
It is unfortunate for the Iranian people that the regime, through its nefarious, destabilizing and antagonizing behavior in the region and across the world has brought the ire of so many of its neighbors and of the free world on our country.
To the extent that the sanctions limit or reduce the regime’s resources from being used for such actions, this is something the people of Iran understand and appreciate. Iranians realize that they are first and foremost under maximum pressure socially, politically and economically from the Islamic regime itself.
Therefore, my concern and that of the Iranian people is getting rid of this regime. The people don’t chant in the streets against sanctions, they chant against this regime in hundreds of cities across the country.
Was President Donald Trump right to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal?
I do not tell Americans how to run their country, my focus is Iran. I know that any deal or negotiation with this regime and which ignores the Iranian people and their desires and demands are illegitimate.
All those who still aspire to finding a solution by negotiating with this regime only prove how out of touch they are with the real aspirations and sentiments of the Iranian people. My focus, rather, is on removing the maximum pressure of this regime on our people.
Trump’s hardline approach is directly pushing down living standards of normal Iranians—is this a price worth paying to try and contain the Iranian regime?
Containment and appeasement have proven to be the policy of sustaining the status quo. It is the policy of continuously taking the same steps and expecting different results.
To the extent that the regime is cut off from the resources used to oppress at home and abroad, the Iranian people understand and appreciate that.
But the determining factor in Iran’s future will be the Iranian people not foreign policies, as I have always told our people. To that end, if any nation wants to deal with Iran it must deal with those who hold the answers to its future: the people, not the regime.
I have said for decades that the West has a role to play in supporting the Iranian people in their movement because this support and solidarity will lower the cost of our ultimate victory. The burden of conscience lays heavily on all those who claim liberty and freedom as values and are astonishingly silent now, when their voices are most needed.
Should the White House change its strategy on Iran?
After forty years of failed attempts to appease this irreformable regime, isn’t it time for a different strategy?
Do not try to engage this regime. The previous administration made this mistake to disastrous effect for the Iranian people and for the region. Instead, engage the Iranian people and the secular democratic opposition.
For example, use the frozen assets of this regime and return them to their rightful owners, the people. Use it to support a strike fund to give my compatriots the ability to go on mass strikes and bring this regime to its knees through widespread, peaceful civil disobedience.
As an additional example, the administration should take measures to promote and safeguard uninterrupted access to the internet, and limit the regime’s ability to promote its own propaganda while it asphyxiates our people’s access to information.
Are you in touch with Trump administration officials and do you give advice on their approach?
For all of these years, I have communicated the same, consistent message to international leaders, including those in the United States.
That message has been simple: you cannot properly develop a policy for the future when you are focused on dealing with this illegitimate regime, you must recognize the people’s demand for fundamental change, and you must engage the people. I will continue to advocate this message.
The problem is not that the regime has not changed it’s behavior, because it never will, but rather that the world has not changed its behavior looking to appease this regime.
Correction 12/12/19, 8.43 a.m.: This article has been corrected to reflect that Reza Pahlavi is no longer the head of the National Council of Iran.
Iranians Understand Trump Sanctions, Obama Nuclear Deal Was ‘Disastrous,’ Shah’s Son Says
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe