ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson sat down with Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former Shah, who said he is not afraid of risking his life for a regime change
Since September, a wave of protests inside Iran has threatened the regime. An autocratic regime that took control more than four decades ago. A regime that has confronted this uprising with untold brutality.
Now, the man leading the charge to bring an end to the government there, is the Crown Prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi. He is the eldest son of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown by the Iranian Revolution on 11th February, 1979.
The Shah was an ally to the West but also led an authoritarian regime. Poverty and oppression was one of the reasons the revolution erupted but a different social dynamic within society existed then. Women had more freedom.
Under the Shah’s 37-year rule, the country experienced rapid industrial and military modernisation, and economic and social reforms, but in 1978 growing political unrest snowballed and ultimately led to the monarchy’s downfall.
Historians say the number of people killed by his military during the revolution ranged from 540 to 2,000, but when the monarchy was abolished and Iran declared an Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, suggested the number was closer to 60,000.
The Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi is a well-known critic of Iran’s Islamic Republic government. Its Supreme Leader now is Ali Khamenei - the head of state and the highest political and religious authority.
Reza Pahlavi is also a leading figure among Iranian dissidents, and he has united with other opposition figures with the same goal of ridding the country of the clerical administration, despite its forty-year existence.
The group is working on a charter for a future, democratic Iran.
This week, the Prince is on a tour of Europe to drum up support for that regime change, and on his short trip to London, we sat down to talk about what the West could do to help Iranians desperate for freedom. Those who have taken to the streets for nearly six months.
It is not a protest, he maintains, but a desire for fundamental change.
“It's truly a revolution. First of its kind in the world led by women. Right now, the demand on the street when they chant ‘Death to the Dictator’ is a clear message to the whole world, we have had enough of these people, we want to get rid of them. We want a different future, a different system.”
The bravery we have seen on the streets of Iran has been met with extreme violence from government forces, yet the courage remains unflinching. The Crown Prince is unsurprised by what he’s seen.
“There's nothing new to totalitarian system trying to impose their will by intimidation and threats and terror tactics, and yet they [the protesters] choose to continue the fight. It means that we are willing to pay with our lives, even face torture and execution.”
I noticed immediately that he used the word “we.” He counts himself as one of the activists. So, does that mean he too is afraid for his own life and his family’s?
“The question is, is it in vain or is it for a purpose? It's always been for a purpose. Therefore, I'm not afraid and I'm willing to risk my life if so needed, but we need to win. We need to win this fight, and our ask to the outside world is, are you this time on the right side of history with us against a common enemy? Or are you going to leave us alone in this fight?"
The Prince has come to Europe to urge leaders to help his campaign. Reza Pahlavi firmly believes that everything is linked to this regime: the nuclear threat, terror beyond its borders, Iranian-made drones attacking Ukraine and more refugees coming to Europe, but he stopped short of criticising the West’s lack of intervention in the current turmoil, yet appealed for a stronger line to be taken.
“The regime is testing. It has always tested the Western resolve to stand firm vis a vis them. And every time the West has stood firm vis a vis them, they have backtracked. And every time that you show laxity or hesitation or weakness, they have taken every advantage of it. We want the West to be at the strongest as opposed to at its weakest. We want to succeed without having to have recourse to other remedies that are much less desirable.”
Other "remedies" being the potential for real conflict, a war. That is something he thinks is “plausible,” despite being “undesirable.”
“It will be historically criminal not to at least give this process a chance. An opportunity to finally bring this regime down to its knees.”
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...
For the past four decades, clerical leaders have been in control, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as their enforcers. A major military, economic and political force the Crown Prince wants determined as a terrorist organisation. A move - he believes - could paralyse the government.
“Putting the IRGC on the terrorist list means more assets could be frozen, more assets could be confiscated, and that can by itself generate more means to support for the Iranian people, more directly. The combined elements of external pressure and internal pressure on the regime is then sufficient to bring the regime to paralysis in an ultimate implosion and collapse.”
Several times throughout our conversation, the Crown Prince used expressions like “the moment is now” and “the time is now.” It was emphatic, but there have been many protest movements in Iran in the past, why is this one so different?
“All the stars are aligned,” he said. “The people are on the street, you have the intelligentsia within Iran who believe in a secular model, so basically the regime is in total atrophy.
"It's just a final push over the hill that is necessary, with a secular democratic alternative that you can trust because you are dealing with people who think like you with the same mindset, with the same value system to replace a regime that has always been against all of these values.
"That's what I'm pleading for, for the sake of humanity and for the sake of avoiding escalation of conflict. Because after 40 years of life under a religious dictatorship, an Iranian nation understand the importance of the concept of separation of church from state as a prerequisite to democracy.”
Women’s rights are also at the core of this uprising, after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in September in police custody. She’d been arrested for not wearing her headscarf properly.
Reza Pahlavi has three daughters living in the States and, albeit they have grown up in the West, he laughed when I asked him if they wore a headscarf.
“If they ever thought that I expected them to wear a headscarf, there’d be pandemonium in my house. It's a choice at the end of the day. It should not be in any form or shape a symbol of assimilation or subjugation. If the fact that the headscarf or the non-proper use of it has created a revolution, then it will tell you how meaningful that very thing is. It has become a symbol of defiance or a rejection of a system.”
The exiled Crown Prince lives in Washington but believes he can play a critical role in guiding the transition to a new political system in Iran.
He doesn’t believe in the restoration of the monarchy and assured me that he doesn’t want to play an institutional role or be preoccupied with the daily governance of the country in the future. He skillfully avoided it when I asked him if he could ever see a day when he would go back and lead Iran.
What he did say was this: “People have been traumatised because they've been consistently lied to, abused, intimidated. The trust in any apparatus of state has totally been destroyed in our society. Building back trust and confidence takes time. That's my cup of tea. That's the part that I would like to come in and help with.”
Reza Pahlavi is 62 years old and has lived outside Iran for more than two thirds of his life, but when he goes to bed at night, he still has the same dream for his country.
“My only mission in life is to see to it that Iranians get their chance to vote their future through the ballot box.”
And, the Crown Prince’s hand has been strengthened by a generation of Iranians not prepared to wait anymore.