When revolution struck Iran in 1979, Prince Reza Pahlavi, then nineteen, saw himself exiled from his home country. His father had been overthrown and the Iranian state was to become an Islamic regime, under Ayatollah Khomeini, which would radically alter the society, culture, and way of life of an entire nation.
The trajectory of how Pahlavi eventually came to be one of the most prominent advocates of freedom and democracy in Iran from that point is not easy to plot. As a student at Williams College and the University of Southern California, as well as during his time in Cairo where his father died in 1980, Pahlavi soon developed strong views on the issues of human rights and democracy, for which he is now fights across the world.
Author of three books, including ‘Winds of Change’, and also spokesman for the Iran National Council for Free Election, Pahlavi now spends his time travelling in the hope of promoting a change of regime in his home country. He is also, under the Persian constitution of 1906, the current heir to the Persian throne.
As a reader of Edward Said’s ‘Reflections on Exile’, I asked Pahlavi how this condition of exilehas shaped the way he has led his life since the revolution.
“It’s a different kind of pain, where you know that you want to be back home but you are prohibited from being there. The life of an exile is not like that of one who decides freely to emigrate and go somewhere else. Ever since my father died in Cairo, Iran has been foremost in my mind, and I have now been, for practically 33 years and counting, in the struggle of the opposition and trying to change things, so it has been the story of my life so far.
“I don’t look at exile necessarily in a negative way, because a lot of what I’ve learnt – being exposed to democratic societies, seeing life from the prism of the average citizen in these countries, interacting with them, understanding their aspirations and pains – there is no way I could possibly have had the experience I have today, which has enriched me in so many ways, had I inherited my father’s position.”
Indeed, despite not having been in Iran for over three decades, Pahlavi claims to speak for the average citizen in Iran, a suggestion many people have found problematic.
“The fact that I’ve been away from my country has not meant that I’ve been detached from what’s happening there, because I’ve always had a strong [line of] communication. I’m in touch with Iranians at home, dissidents, their activities etcetera – the only difference is that I’m not physically there, but it’s not that I’m detached.”
During his talk at the Oxford Union, Pahlavi spoke a lot about the errors of the Iranian regime, the work which needs to be done, and how a change of regime in Iran must come from within, with strong support from the West. However, there is little reference to the Arab Spring, or the possibility of a similar movement taking place in Iran. The role that social media could play in such a takeover intrigues Pahlavi.
“The most utilised tool of defiance and organisation is social media. For instance, every year around this time the Islamic Regime has a whole week dedicated to celebrating the revolution. A month ago, in close collaboration with dissident groups we supported two campaigns that call for an end to capital punishment and the forceful imposition of the veil. This came from inside. I’d never have dreamed of doing the things that we are capable of doing now even 20 years ago. Social media has been a tremendous tool which has been helpful to many civilian and democratic movements across the world – at least as a tool it has been successful in Iran so far.”
Despite his calls for freedom and democracy in Iran, Pahlavi is often criticised for continuing to use the dynastic title which has helped him project his voice around the world. In justifying his use of the royal badge to further his country’s aims, he says, “I am my own man, with my own ideas, and I am the product of my own generation. In that sense I hope that people assess me not on the basis of my inheritance but on the basis of my platform.”
Much of Pahlavi’s rhetoric is overly optimistic, plagued by the cultural essentialisms which dominate the West’s attitudes to the Middle East. When asked about the West’s part in contributing to the situation in Iran, the exiled Prince comments,“There are many aspects that are attractive to the average Iranian when he looks at the West holistically. Values, freedoms that they can exercise, which they come and see for themselves. When they come to these countries they have no worries. People seek this culture – and in many ways they want to show, and in many ways they demonstrate – their appreciation and their respect for that.
“It’s much more than a cultural thing, it’s to do with values, it’s recognising the values which are inherent in free societies which is the attraction. Equality is equality.
“Iran is one of the very few countries in the Middle East which had many of these values before the revolution and lost them. There was a time, not long ago, when an Iranian woman could drive at 2 o’clock in the morning, totally alone in her car across an a entire desert and nobody would dare stop her or attack her or intimidate her.”
Pahlavi’s attitude seems too hopeful. Too confident in the existence of “universal” values, in the inherent benevolence of the west, in the possibility of a peaceful revolution. And yet, as an exile, and a high-profile victim of the revolution, this is inspiring. Perhaps the only thing which can drive forward a movement of national liberation is an unwavering sense of hope in the face of all adversity.