With the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, her 73-year-old son Prince Charles ascended the British throne to become King Charles III. In a previous article, “Remembering Seven Decades of the Queen's Encounters with Iran”, we reviewed the contact between the Queen and Iranian leaders down the decades. Less known, though, is that her son Prince Charles is the only member of the royal family who has visited the country under the Islamic Republic – albeit only for a day.
On February 10, 2004, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the 1979 revolution, for the first time a member of the British royal family entered Iran. Prince Charles, now King Charles III, arrived in Tehran at dawn for a one-day visit.
Naturally it had been planned long before, but was kept a secret until news was announced of his having met with then-President Mohammad Khatami. After the Royal Air Force planes carrying the crown prince and his entourage landed at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, the then 55-year-old Charles first visited Khatami at his office in Tehran’s Pasteur Avenue, then set out for the earthquake-stricken city of Bam, which was the main reason for his visit.
On December 26, 2003, a major quake had struck the southeast Iranian province of Kerman, inflicting heavy damage in the ancient city. At least 34,000 people had been killed and up to 200,000 injured.
The prince had no official host in Iran, because his trip was an unofficial one for humanitarian purposes rather than a state visit. Despite this, his discussion with Khatami was by all accounts cordial.
The reformist premier spoke with Charles about John Locke, the 17th-century Enlightenment philosopher known as the “Father of Liberalism”, and praised British democracy and the prince’s charitable work, as well as his efforts to bring people of different religious denominations closer together. It was a meeting unimaginable today for any contemporary Iranian politician, including Khatami himself.
According to Iranian media, Khatami told Prince Charles that the “experience of the British people in establishing democracy” had been very important. “All countries and the international community need democracy,” he had said, “but of course democracy within countries is not enough. We must have a democratic world where all nations enjoy equal rights.”
No detailed reports are available of what Prince Charles told the Iranian president in return. But according to Iranian media, Charles said that “misunderstandings between Islam and the West has always been a risk” and called for “the creation of an assembly of advisors who would work to find common points for dialogue.”
After that informal talk, Charles departed for Bam and met with survivors after passing through the ruins of the city. Over the course of several hours, he also spoke with local officials about rebuilding Bam, its water canals and thousands of wells that had been destroyed, and then went to the historic Bam Citadel, the largest adobe building in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was almost completely destroyed.
The British Embassy in Tehran announced that Prince Charles and Nicholas Young, then-chief executive of the British Red Cross, would examine how survivors of the Bam earthquake could be helped, and in particular how local agriculture might be revived.
At that time, Charles was an active supporter of the Red Cross and carried a message of solidarity and help from this organization to the survivors. He was and remains very interested in urban development and eco-friendly agriculture and during his long time as crown prince, he closely managed and oversaw development in Cornwall.
Sixteen years later, in 2020, Prince Charles told London newspaper the Sunday Times that he would like to make an official visit to Iran. “I know that Iran has been such an important part of the world for so many centuries, and has contributed so much to human knowledge, culture, poetry, art. I mean, really remarkable people,” he told the interviewer. It appears that the Iranian government was not convinced by the overture.
Unlike other countries, including several of Iran’s immediate neighbors, neither the Islamic Republic at large nor its foreign ministry in particular have offered condolences after the death of Prince Charles’s mother, Queen Elizabeth II. On the contrary, hardline media outlets sought to malign her reign in coverage this weekend.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s bellicose attitude toward the West throughout his 33-year rule, which has sometimes turned into obscenities-filled rants and conspiracy theories, has now become the formal, public policy stance of the Islamic Republic.
In a note published by the IRGC’s Fars News Agency this week, a spokesman for Khamenei’s office called Queen Elizabeth II a “hag” who had cost Britain more than a billion dollars a few months before her death (in celebration of her Platinum Jubilee, marking the 70th anniversary of her ascension to the throne). Practically no “government” other than the Taliban in Afghanistan took such a derogatory position toward the Queen this week.
Nineteen years after his humanitarian visit to Iran, Prince Charles is now King Charles III of Britain and the head of the Commonwealth. For the time being at least, a repeat visit to Tehran seems to be firmly off the cards.
Not to say that this also means there is no opportunity to keep meeting with Iranian people. At Prince Charles’ 70th birthday celebration three years ago, part of the program was a performance by Omid Jalili, a British comedian of Iranian descent. The crown prince – along with the crowd who were there to celebrate his birthday – laughed at the jokes, including a couple of good-natured ones about the prince himself. It is hard to imagine any Iranian official doing the same.