By Ehsan Mehrabi (Iran Wire)
Reza Pahlavi, the former Crown Prince of Iran and a vocal opponent of the Islamic Republic, has called on the Iranian people to unite against the current rulers of the country to “save Iran.”
“My motivation is not to gain political power, but to try to establish a system in which power is not the prerogative of one individual or group,” he said in a message announcing a new vision for the country, which he referred to as a “New Covenant.”
Pahlavi, whose father was the last Shah of Iran before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, went live with his new message on Monday, September 28. “I extend a helping hand to all pro-democracy political forces, regardless of their past or political orientation,” he said, “and I want them to put aside differences, arrogance, and ambitions of supremacy and focus on one goal: to save Iran.”
The video, which has been posted on YouTube, shows Pahlavi behind a desk, the pre-revolution Iranian flag at his side. He urges all Iranians to embrace their “patriotic duty” to bring about change, to challenge the regime, whose only achievements in 41 years, he says, have been “isolation, social collapse, discrimination, economic freefall, frustration, and hopelessness,” and to acknowledge that the Revolutionary Guards and its voluntary wing the Basij are only set on “generating wealth through corruption and crime” for a few elite.
“The path to victory is clear. We must connect strikes, protests, civil disobedience in various parts of the country to one another,” he says. “We must promote civil disobedience in all its forms.” He encourages people to support strikers, workers, and political prisoners.
Perhaps most compelling is his call for Iranians to “Look into the eyes of your own children. See how their futures are being held hostage by the personal interests of corrupt few. Your children ask you: On which side do you stand?”
He asks the same question, “On which side do you stand?” several times throughout the 15 minute clip, urging people to act.
Pahlavi’s comments elicited a range of responses in and outside Iran, with some seeing the covenant as a manifesto and others viewing it as pure propaganda. Academic and author Ramin Parham said on Twitter that the address was “the death of an illusion” and a “covenant that has nothing.”
IranWire spoke with international relations expert Mehran Barati and political analyst Reza Taghizadeh about the new rally cry.
Mehran Barati, the deputy secretary-general and head of international affairs at the Transition Council of Iran, an organization made up of secular Iranians based outside the country that was launched in 2019, described the new announcement as “Prince Reza Pahlavi’s farewell to the monarchists in boots.” For decades, many pro-monarchy Iranian activists have advocated a return of the monarchy and the overthrow of the Iranian regime at any cost — including using violence. But Barati says Pahlavi’s recent appeal to Iranians is a rejection of this stance.
Instead of the retreating boots image favored by Barati, political analyst Taghizadeh prefers the imagery of a waving flag. Again, for Iranians, this is deeply symbolic, given that Iran has been ruled under a number of different flags, including the Derafsh Kaviani of Iran’s longest-running pre-Islamic empire, the Lion and Sun emblem that sat at the center of the tri-colored flag before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and the one currently used for the country, which was adopted in 1980.
From Barati’s point of view, Pahlavi is not clear on what role he expects to play in his call for transformation in Iran, and says the video message shows he has no aspirations to lead an opposition movement. In fact, he says, Pahlavi hopes to avoid such a role because it will “create responsibilities and dangers that he is not willing to accept” and because of his “strong democratic tendencies.”
Taghizadeh and Barati agree that Pahlavi is not putting himself forward as a symbol of the movement. They both say he believes a coalition between political parties and groups is the most promising solution.
However, the fact that he gives his address sitting alongside the pre-revolution, historic flag of Iran points to a strong symbolism that has nothing to with individuals and everything to do with heritage. On a more practical level, Taghizadeh points out that Pahlavi is much more skilled and experienced than many other Iranian oppositional figures, and so has a greater stature than many politicians speaking out against the Islamic Republic.
The Audience for “A New Covenant”
In Mehran Barati’s opinion, Reza Pahlavi’s “new covenant” is speaking to Iranian monarchists based outside Iran, including those who have advocated violence to achieve their aim of reinstating the monarchy in Iran. But although he does not take an anti-monarchist position, Pahlavi’s new statement makes it clear that he does not support the idea that Iran led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei should be replaced by a new autocratic and authoritarian leader.
But highlighting Ramin Parham’s criticism that Pahlavi is not really saying anything new, Taghizadeh said it was easy to make such an assumption but actually, weighted with the reality of what’s going on Iran at the moment — the failing economy, Iran’s isolation from the world, increasing unrest on the streets — it’s a strong message. “People are worried that the situation in the country will be like Syria and economically like Venezuela,” he adds.
At the same time, he says, Pahlavi may have a solid audience, but it’s not the same as the political opposition in a country like Venezuela. “Prince Reza Pahlavi is not inside the country and he still does not have the popularity of Juan Guaidó in Venezuela, who is recognized as the head of state by more than 50 countries and has a designated team of people behind him.” So he pushes away from the idea of this movement being focused on one personality who will lead the movement, and reiterates his call for people to demand an Iran that is not controlled by an elite few.
Connecting Strikes and Protests
“Prince Reza Pahlavi has previously said he does not want to participate in political affairs as a political activist and intends to be a hinge between the opposition,” says Mehran Barati. “But now, in this message, he has announced that he seeks political action.”
Where he avoids outlining specific policies that this reclaimed Iran might promote, he sets his sight on what Taghizadeh calls “the primary goal.” He doesn’t go into details because he believes that’s the role of the Iranian people, according to Taghizadeh.
Taghizadeh says one of the most important parts of the address is Pahlavi’s emphasis on support for strikes and widespread civil action and disobedience. This is a departure for Pahlavi and other political figures based outside Iran, who have rarely called for a direct joining together of workers’ strikes and people’s protests. He says, in this way, Pahlavi is advocating for the establishment of a broader foundation that can support change.
Pahlavi and Opposition Groups
“He does not have a political party to create a coalition with other parties and groups, and the question arises whether his action can only be an incentive for political activism,” says Barati.
For many years, Pahlavi has had close links to the Iranian National Council for Free Elections, which operates as an umbrella organization for Iranian opposition groups in exile.”He resigned from the council because he recognized that his activity as a political leader was not in his interest,” says Barati. “Now the Constitutional Party expects him to pursue an inherited kingdom. But for Prince Reza Pahlavi, the principle of republic is important, and he cannot accept this role … He is not a centralist either, and he is happy that a group from the far right is sitting together with extremist left groups. Incidentally, he is more interested in the left.”
Barati also warns of the danger of people wanting change in Iran being overly-critical of Pahlavi, despite the entrenched divisions between the various oppositional groups. “Our society is not a tribal society where Reza Pahlavi can be held responsible for the past mistakes of the Pahlavi family. As a citizen, he can enter the political struggle. Prince Reza Pahlavi will play a prominent role both individually and also in the form of the group which he forms.”
Taghizadeh’s view is that other Iranian opposition groups should not be confrontational with Pahlavi. They may have differing viewpoints but they all want to “save Iran,” as Pahlavi says, and they can work together to do this. “If this situation continues, the people will take over the opposition,” he says. In this way, he says, freedom can be achieved.
Iranians and Their Leading Figures
Reza Pahlavi may not be putting himself as a leader, though some commentators say this is exactly what his video message is doing. But the problem, says Reza Taghizadeh is that there isn’t really a stand-out leader to mobilize the movement. People often mention Pahlavi, but very few other names or personalities seem to be flouted, especially over the last three years, “not even the leaders of the Green Movement.”
But Barati is realistic about agendas other figures might be pushing. “Of course a wide range of monarchists are trying to influence him. We used to say that someone should save him from the diehard monarchists.”
Mehran Barati says Iranian society has traditionally relied on political figures, pointing to former prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and Ayatollah Khomeini as the best examples in recent history. But, he says, “People are wounded and will not easily accept the leadership of an individual or an organization.”
At the same time, he acknowledges the figures that many in Iranian society do respect and accept, “leaders who will gradually emerge during the struggle, figures such as Nasrin Sotoudeh, Narges Mohammadi and Mohammad Nourizad. These people may gradually create a political group, and as individuals they are also influential.”
But Reza Taghizadeh is skeptical about how much leadership these figures can actually demonstrate. “An imprisoned human rights activist who has gone on a hunger strike has supporters. But how can this person manage a population of 80 million with all the crises and ethnic differences? What management experience or insight and worldview could this person have?”
Pahlavi pitches his address to the Iranian people as a “conversation” he wants to have now “in response to the innumerable messages” he has received from people “worried about Iran and its future.” But Barati says if he wants to carry on a conversation, he can’t really afford to distance himself from having a specific role in the movement he advocates. He can’t fulfil his “patriotic duty” he’s asking everyone to play without defining a clear role for himself.
“The current situation is different from 41 years ago,” Reza Taghizadeh points out. The Green Revolution and other movements for change have changed the political environment and recent history, but now it’s a different time altogether, he says.
Reza Pahlavi’s message is a unique opportunity for Iranian people, and Taghizadeh says they can likely get support from movements and people in other parts of the world, including potential financial support when the movement makes some progress. Again, he mentions Venezuela. ”It is true that the more we have a share in the country, the more independent we will be from foreign interests, but without foreign interests this change is not possible.”