Since December 2017, workers, teachers, pensioners and ordinary people from all walks of life have been staging protests in cities and towns across Iran. They have been voicing their anger at the Islamic Republic regime and its leaders for plunging the country into political, social and economic turmoil. The spontaneous civil unrest has gradually morphed into what is now a grassroots street movement.
Iranians have come to a realization that reform will not happen from within the system itself. The protesters have been chanting “Reformists, conservatives, your time is up.”
Prince Reza Pahlavi is one of the principal leaders of the pro-democracy movement who, for many years, has been galvanizing Iranian opposition groups against the Islamic Republic regime.
Nazenin Ansari of Kayhan London and KayhanLife, recently spoke to Reza Pahlavi about the civil unrest in Iran and the need to lead and steer the popular movement in the right direction.
Nazenin Ansari: Our guest today is Prince Reza Pahlavi. Welcome to our program. Your most recent interview was with Voice of America (VOA) about two weeks ago. In your view, what have been the most significant changes and developments in the past few weeks?
Prince Reza Pahlavi: I wouldn’t call it a change but a continuation. What distinguishes the current movement from those of previous years is the determination and the steadfastness of the people who have been marching in the streets for months. They have been protesting the dire economic conditions and demanding their fundamental rights. These demonstrations are getting bigger every day and spreading through the entire country.
The nationwide unrest shows people’s unwavering resolve and their complete lack of faith in a regime that has repeatedly failed its people in the past 40 years. The Islamic Republic is unable to gain the public trust, particularly during the current crisis. The recent protests have played a key role in unifying the Iranian public. We have witnessed an extraordinary demonstration of national solidarity, which is a significant development.
Q: It would appear that many people who travel back and forth to Iran have had a change of heart recently. They genuinely love their country and until recently defended the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and foreign policies, especially in regards to Syria. They had pinned their hopes for economic recovery on President Hassan Rouhani’s team, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. However, they have been bitterly disappointed and disillusioned.
Meanwhile, opposing factions within the regime have exploited the current crisis to attack each other and gain political advantage. What is your message to the educated, affluent and young segments of the Iranian society, some of whom have studied, worked and lived abroad?
A: To accurately assess the nature and impact of any civil unrest, we must hit the pavement, so to speak, and look for those answers at the source. We should search the streets for the underlying cause of any popular movement. The protesters have been chanting clear and concise slogans against the regime, the conservatives, and the reformists.
We have witnessed a wholesale rejection of the entire establishment. No one believes that the ruling system in Iran can survive the current crisis, which is not surprising at all. History has shown that all totalitarian rules eventually come to an end. The most recent example of this was the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
I must highlight an important issue here. The regime has been trying to scare the public into believing that if it were to collapse, the country would plunge into a civil war and would turn into another Syria. These are empty threats and fear-mongering tactics. We shouldn’t forget that the regime has created the current crisis. It has been responsible for the crippling sanctions that have been imposed on Iran by the international community. It has also played a crucial role in destroying Syria and destabilizing the entire region.
The Iranian people have no reason to fear that something awful might happen if the regime were to collapse. Once the current establishment is gone, no foreign power would feel threatened any longer and, therefore, have any reason to start a war with Iran. There is also no need for foreign intervention once the Iranian security forces side with the people and protect all citizens.
The territorial integrity of the country is an important issue and depends on national unity. All ethnic minorities living in Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Baluchestan and other regions will be part of a democratic state that affords equal rights to all of its citizens irrespective of their race, religion, gender and ethnic origin. They will all be protected by a Constitution which will be based on the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights and guarantees the separation of powers.
A democratic framework can resolve most issues which concern the Iranian people. In my view, it is in the best interest of the international community to deal with a powerful country that plays a crucial role in stabilizing the region. We have moved on from the problems that faced the world in the 20th century, such as colonialism. The modern world faces new sets of challenges including severe water shortage and the refugee crisis. However you look at it, a regime change would benefit Iranians and the world.
You mentioned the educated, the affluent and the young segments of the Iranian society who have ties to various businesses, organizations, and institutions, inside and outside the country. They can make a significant contribution to their community only if the state welcomes and support them. However, the current regime has systematically driven them out of Iran. [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini famously said that “economy is for donkeys,” and 40 years later we see the disastrous consequences of that viewpoint.
Our nation is hungry for economic growth and prosperity. However, we must first free the country from the clutches of the corrupt mafia state and its powerful military arm, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Only then would billions of dollars in investment pour into the country, reviving the economy and creating jobs. It is abundantly clear that the regime cannot solve the current crisis.
What should we do then? Street marches and protests have been hugely successful. The public has done its job. However, this is not enough. What we need is a supervisory council to oversee the transfer of power from the current regime to future governing bodies. It will lead the movement through various stages to its final destination.
Q: You mean creating a council inside Iran?
A: People have done their part. However, we are yet to see political leaders, intellectuals, and the affluent class join forces with the grassroots movement in the street. That solidarity is vital to the success of a widespread campaign, and, therefore, needs to happen as soon as possible, because it will make it much easier for the security forces to side with the people against the regime. They cannot operate in a vacuum. There will be a clear path forward in that event.
People know that the state ruthlessly cracks down on the protesters. The authorities use foreign agents who don’t even speak Farsi to brutalize the protesters. Opposition groups outside Iran lend their support to the protesters. However, the time has come for political leaders to enter the arena. They should assume the political leadership of the movement.
Let me give you an example. Recently some Majlis [Iranian Parliament] deputies encouraged people in some parts of the country to stage protests, in [the southwestern province of] Khuzestan for instance. The move clearly shows that there are elements within the regime that would like to bring about significant changes to the system. We need this unity. Put bluntly, the current leadership of the movement can’t get us to the finish line unless we manage to coordinate our efforts.
For my part, I’ve always tried to help to unify these forces inside the country. I’ve also sought the support of the international community for the people of Iran in their struggle against the regime. These efforts can gain greater momentum and grow but only if we can unify our forces and steer the movement.
Q: Here are some questions that our readers would like to ask you:
Do you have a plan for changing the current situation which would keep the human cost to a minimum but would bring maximum benefit to the Iranian people?
A: My position hasn’t changed on this issue. For the past 25 years, I’ve advocated resistance through peaceful and non-violent civil disobedience. People in many countries have been able to achieve their objectives through peaceful means and without the loss of a single human life.
Our nation faces a single enemy from within, namely the Islamic Republic which has taken our country hostage for the past 40 years. However, some people inside the regime sympathize with the public, including members of the military, the IRGC and even Basij [volunteer militia.] They don’t wish to go down with a sinking ship. But they want some guarantees that they’ll be safe after the regime has collapsed. Only Iranian society can give them that assurance.
Can we base the future of our country on violence, executions, and revenge? The answer is no; otherwise, we’ll get stuck in a vicious circle. National reconciliation would pave the way for those individuals to break away from the regime and join the popular movement. However, our society has to send a message of peace to these insiders, asking them to protect the public instead of terrorizing them. Fortunately, this is happening and must continue to keep the human cost to a minimum.
The moment we resort to violence, we’d scare off those insiders who intended to join the movement. However, if we are unable to guarantee the safety of these individuals, they may decide to remain with the regime to the bitter end. Many people criticize me for advocating peaceful civil disobedience which in their view is an ineffective strategy. They insist that only through armed struggle would we be able to get the country back. I tell them: go ahead if that’s what you want, but the regime will wipe out everyone including your families after you fire the first shot.
In such a scenario the situation would deteriorate rapidly into a full-blown crisis and complete anarchy, allowing some opportunist forces to exploit the chaotic political and social climate to their advantage. We aim to steer a controlled collapse of the regime. The last thing we want is the complete anarchy that might follow the destruction of the current system. In my view, this is an important point. I debate this issue with political activists all the time.
The question that most Iranian ask is what will happen next? That’s precisely my point, meaning that we need to know what will come after the regime is gone. We must avoid creating another more significant crisis. I’m sure most pro-democracy political activists and groups envision a country in which people determine the future of the nation through their elected representatives.
So, our best chance is for the intellectuals, political leaders, activists, experts and leaders who have the trust of the people to offer a viable alternative to the current regime. The council would supervise the transition of power during the interim period until the country holds parliamentary elections in line with the articles of the Constitution.
The world is watching all of these events and developments. Some of my fellow Iranians ask me if I ever discuss the fate of our country with other governments. I don’t see any need for entering talks with any foreign government, because only the Iranian people are the deciding factor in this matter. I only address my fellow Iranians when I speak about the future of our country. The only point that I usually make to foreign governments and leaders, be it Donald Trump or Emmanuel Macron or others, is that their support for the Iranian people would significantly reduce the human cost in their struggle for freedom and democracy.
We decide our fate. We must stop worrying about what would happen if the regime were to collapse. We are in charge of our destiny. Our courage, resolve and desire for change will liberate us from our chains depending on our ability to unite and speak with one voice. We can pull ourselves out of this hole. I have absolutely no doubt that Iran has all the necessary natural, financial and human resources to rebuild itself.
Our biggest challenge is to revive our culture, which the regime has systematically destroyed in the past 40 years. We can’t do this overnight. I know that various parties might compete for power, but I don’t think this is the right time for political rivalries. We must unite as a nation in our struggle for freedom. People need to feel that they are in charge of their future. Every one of us has to play his or her part if we are to achieve this goal.
Fortunately, there is an ongoing dialogue about all of these issues. However, as I said earlier national unity would require that the affluent class, the intellectuals, the activists and the political leaders manage and guide the protest movement. The leadership council would supervise the interim government and lay the groundwork for the elections to determine the country’s future governing system. They would ensure a smooth transfer of power. However, these critical segments of our society have yet to enter the political arena.
Q: Have you had any response from sources within the political establishment inside and outside the country regarding the structure, organization, and objectives of the protest movement?
A: Yes. I’m sure you understand that for security reasons, I cannot mention specific names and groups. I’m in constant contact with the activists. We aim to strengthen the movement inside Iran by creating resistance cells and networks. Safety and security are of utmost importance. The activists spearhead the movement inside Iran. As we make progress in the areas I mentioned earlier, we’ll be able to provide more information to our fellow Iranians who live inside and outside the country.
Q: In your view, has the time come to call for national unity and reconciliation as a way of rebuilding the country through the transition period?
A: That’s nothing new. We’ve been talking about this for years. I don’t think there is any opposition group that doesn’t include this point in its charter. It is not enough to express this wish. We must follow it with action. The declaration is unequivocal. It states that our society rejects a despotic theocracy, and would strive to replace it with a democratic system that protects the freedom and civil rights of all its citizens irrespective of their race, ethnicity, religion, and gender.
The only thing that remains is political rivalries between various parties that compete for the right to form a government. That is a regular occurrence in a democracy. I’ve even advised many groups to start thinking about possible political parties rather than the exact nature of the future governing system. We can start thinking about these issues right now.
Many political activists ask me what else they can do. I tell them to think about the future. Going on strike and stage protests is essential. These are crucial measures which lay the groundwork. They can also agree on the framework, principles, and charters of future political parties. They must be ready for next legislative races and parliamentary elections. By strengthening these processes, we’ll shorten the transition period for the transfer of power. It is essential to lay the groundwork now.
We must also prepare ourselves on different fronts in Iran. The Iranian regime will collapse one day soon. I’m not psychic so that I can tell you the exact date of its eventual demise. It may take six months or six years. The regime is facing a major crisis which indicates that it is on its last leg. So, we must think about the interim period and the transfer of power. It is essential to keep the dialogue going. Fortunately, the internet and social media provide effective platforms to counteract the regime’s propaganda machine. We must make good use of these tools.
I think we have gone beyond the call for unity you spoke of earlier. The issue is how to implement it. How do the opposition groups plan to coordinate and organize their efforts in practical terms? How will they move their shared agenda forward and at the same time shelf their differences and revisit them at a later date? We will achieve our goals if we keep our priorities in order; otherwise, our efforts would be an exercise in futility.
Q: The U.S. sanctions have had an adverse impact on Iranian students studying abroad. Many of them are in desperate financial situations to no fault of their own. It is possible that their families might be working for the government or the regime. In other words, they are victims of the circumstances. There have been three instances in modern history of our country when an entire generation has been economically affected by events outside their control. Our fathers’ generation who were studying in Europe during WWII found themselves in challenging circumstances with no money coming out of Iran. Our generation experienced a similar economic hardship after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. What message do you have for Iranians and students living abroad?
A: I have informal and heart-to-heart chats with my fellow Iranians on social media, especially my Instagram page. I hear quite a lot from the “burnt generation,” people who were born between 1960 and 1990. They wonder why they fell victims to circumstances beyond their control. They didn’t do anything to deserve this fate. We see the difference between a compassionate and callous regime in such examples.
A caring and responsible state look after all its people not just its youth but also the elderly, the pensioners and the war veterans. Irrespective of their families’ ties to the regime, these young people have been the victims of circumstances beyond their control. It is the responsibility of the state to look after all its people.
I must point out that people understand and sympathize with these students. However, while many ordinary Iranians have felt the impacts of the sanctions, the children of the regime’s elite reportedly travel freely abroad and live privileged and stress-free lives. Some of them go to the U.S. and even hold government jobs. So, ordinary Iranians feel that the sanctions have only punished them and not the regime and the privileged class.
We envisage an Iran in which justice and equal rights are the norms, and no one is left out. So, the future Iranian society will hold anyone who is oppressing people, exploiting others for personal gains and committing injustices accountable. They will have to stand trial in a court of law. Iranian people continue to suffer as long as the regime remains in power. It has had a negative impact on every aspect of life in the country.
For 40 years we hoped in vain that things would change for the better and reforms might soften the hardline and violent nature of the regime. However, things have gotten worse. Our currency is at an all-time low against the U.S. dollar, and other exchanges and inflation continues to be in double digits. Not even a miracle can improve the situation.
However, we can’t sit idle. We can’t speculate what the U.S., Russia or China might do. We must take charge of our fate. We have to get off this treadmill. We must take decisive steps forward. All groups that we’ve mentioned before including trade unions, political movements, social activists and Iranians living inside and outside the country must stop being mere observers and take meaningful actions.
As I said before, we must make a serious effort. No one will hand us freedom. We must claim it. We have to make that extra effort. People are right when they point out that a movement requires planning, leadership, and guidance. We’re back to my original point, namely that a call for unity is only the first step. What we need is the practical management of the movement which must take shape inside Iran. It must crystallize inside the country. Moreover, it needs our support.
I am convinced that there are people within the establishment that want to leave but are waiting for a sign, a spark, so to speak. Some of them have been courageous enough to express their desire to abandon the regime publicly. They don’t believe in the system they helped to create. These are all positive signs. So, I don’t see any reason for anyone to despair. We do need to coordinate our efforts to move our agenda forward.
I do not doubt that the international community would support our efforts, if for no other reason than to protect their interests. I can’t see any regional or global power that would be against a regime change in Iran. There are of course a handful of countries which have close ties to the regime.
Time and justice are on the side of our people. I wish that my fellow Iranians had more faith in themselves and their capabilities. We must rely on our abilities. We must also abandon conspiracy theories, and accept that most countries pursue their interests. However, our shared values outweigh our differences with most if not all these nations.
Nazenin Ansari: Thank you for taking the time and answering our questions.
Prince Reza: Thank you for having me on your program.
[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]