In mid-March, Iran’s former crown prince, Reza Pahlavi, surprised his supporters by voicing his support for a republic in Iran rather than a hereditary monarchy.
The move alarmed some Iranian monarchists, while others hailed Iran’s former heir apparent for having the potential to unify republicans and royalists. Reza Pahlavi’s father, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, had ruled Iran from 1941 until 1979.
"This hereditary [system] should come to an end someday, " the prince said in a leaked audio recording, which was allegedly taken from a meeting with a group of activists. "As a democrat I can't justify heredity as a basis for the selection of a person of authority, even in the symbolic sense."
Late last week, on Friday, April 16, Voice of America aired a one-hour interview with Reza Pahlavi conducted by the journalist Siamak Dehghanpour. Iran’s last crown prince asked questions on such matters as the Islamic Republic’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, workers’ rights, the nuclear negotiations, Israel-Iran relations with Israel and the recent bilateral deal with China.
During the interview, the prince also sought to clarify the comments he made in March, saying he wanted an “elected monarchy” that would have a role in the affairs of state. But what does that mean?
During last Friday’s interview, Reza Pahlavi emphasized his belief that the Iranian people must be able to choose their system of government in a free referendum: something that, of course, is contingent on the end of the Islamic Republic first.
The former crown prince suggested that participants be given two options: “republic” or “monarchy”. He believes that in 1979, people overthrew the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, without knowing what they wanted instead, and voted in the Islamic Republic without a clear idea about what this regime would end up encompassing.
Reza Pahlavi is not the only one who holds such a view. Many revolutionaries and activists are of the same opinion and say that the only goal at the time was to overthrow the Shah without having any clear idea of an alternative political system. When people wanting “independence” and “freedom” went to the polls, they say, they voted for an “Islamic Republic” though neither the fact of the “republic” itself nor how it was supposed to be “Islamic” were defined.
The voters were listening to just one person, Khomeini, who constantly promised liberty, equality and independence. What emerged, however, was a system that from the very first set out to imprison and execute revolutionaries and critics alike and, after 43 years, continues to do so.
Mistrust in what Reza Pahlavi says is partly the result of historical experience with political leaders, who say the right words before gaining power but follow a different path once they attain it. Reza Pahlavi’s public retreat from supporting a constitutional, symbolic monarchy and his declared preference for a republic both surprised his supporters and triggered doubts among his critics. What is a non-symbolic monarchy? Is it a “classical” monarchy like that of his father’s, or some other kind?
Too Soon to Plan for a Post-Islamic Republic Future
In the interview, Reza Pahlavi also emphasized: “The Iran of the 21st century is different from Iran during the constitutional monarchy”. Both the world, he said, and the people have changed.
He then went on to describe what he called his “only problem” with a relegated, symbolic monarchy: “I did not try so hard to achieve freedom to be the first person who would lose the freedom to express his opinions. This is my issue with having a symbolic role.
“I might wish to be a critic, but I would not be able to intervene in affairs of state. If I [am allowed] to intervene, it must be based on a vote.
“You want me to have a symbolic office and be happy that I once a year I’ll inaugurate the parliament without being able to express my opinion? This is not the most useful role to play. If we really need such a system, how can we make it effective? This is why I am asking for recommendations.”
Reza Pahlavi went on to talk about the importance of civil society and strengthening its institutions in Iran. He recalled various civil rights campaigns since the establishment of the Islamic Republic and pointed out that these had not been centered on specific individuals, but the good of all.
He added that he wanted an “Iran-centered” system, within which individuals might play an influential role, but “discussing it before Iran is liberated is premature. I have said many times that my political and national mission for my country will end when people go to the polls to decide the future system of government.”
A Monarchy Can be a Democracy, Too
Alireza Kiani, a member of the Farashgard Organization, a pro-monarchy network which advocates for “a secular democratic Iran”, told IranWire that while he considers Reza Pahlavi’s interest in playing a role in the post-Islamic Republic Iran to be important, “Are the hands of a constitutional monarchy really tied?”
“Even before this,” he said, “the prince had said he wanted to play a hands-on role. In one respect his interest in political activism is positive. Of course, he has never explicitly stated that he does not want to be king. He is emphasizing the restrictions that a constitutional monarchy would place on him.”
Kiani highlighted Reza Pahlavi’s “popularity and fame”, which he believes no other Iranian enjoys at the same level. But on the other hand, he says, that “he doesn’t believe that [democracy] can only be realized in the form of a republic.
“For instance, we have both the French republic and the British monarchy. Nobody can say the United Kingdom or Japan are not democracies. We have to see which form agrees more with Iran’s historical fabric. The interest in playing an active role is good but how can you play a role [in a constitutional monarchy] without being the monarch?”
This same question has been asked by countless political activists since Reza Pahlavi’s statement in March. IranWire also asked journalist and political activist Reza Alijani for his appraisal of the former crown prince’s statements.
In Alijani’s view, Reza Pahlavi’s statements included two ambiguities. The first was the idea of an elected king, and whether an elected monarch would serve for life. The second was whether an elected, non-hereditary king would play a role in state affairs, even though he did not hide his interest in playing such a role.
“In his statements,” Alijani says, “he persistently evades the question of whether an elected king would serve for life and leaves the question to experts to answer. On the other hand, he is frank about wanting to play a hands-on role and says he does not want a purely ceremonial role. He said that he wants to be able to hold the ministers and government officials accountable.”
According to Alijani, one of the key statements made by Reza Pahlavi was regarding the difference between 21st-century Iran and the 20th-century constitutional monarchy. This, he believes, threw more weight behind the idea of a republic.
“He says that if the question of a hereditary monarchy were solved there would be no difference,” Alijani says. “What he means that in such a case, there would be no difference between a monarchy and a republic, and he would no longer say that a republic is better.
“The other key statement is that ‘some people think I have given up [on monarchy] but this is not true.’ He makes it clear that his ideal is a non-hereditary, hands-on monarchy for life.”
An Elected Monarchy?
According to Alijani, the difference between Reza Pahlavi’s envisaged monarchy and the “classic” monarchy of his father and grandfather is that the former would be an elected office, meaning that “every few years we would have an election to choose a king from among various candidates. This is nonsense.”
Alijani agrees with Reza Pahlavi that the civil society must be strengthened. But he believes that, in general, Reza Pahlavi’s statements indicated “doubts and uncertainty” or rather, he is “zigzagging”.
In his view, Reza Pahlavi’s statements sound very much like Faezeh Hashemi’s recent defense of the record of her father, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. “When you defend someone, you cannot only be a partner in good things that they have done,” he says. “You are a partner in their crimes and must answer for those as well.
“Without comparing the influence of Khomeini to that of Reza Pahlavi — naturally Reza Pahlavi in no way enjoys the same level of influence as Khomeini — I must say that these types of vague statements and back-and-forths sow doubts in the mind of activists.
“I only hope he will continue favoring a republic over a monarchy and, as he himself says, will get the results that are fit for the 21st century. In the 21st-century Middle East, a hands-on lifetime monarchy would be no different to the past dictatorships.”
There are those who see Reza Shah as an alternative to the Islamic Republic. But like thousands of others the world over, his ideas for the time after the Islamic Republic remain ill-defined.