WASHINGTON - The son of Iran's last monarch, exiled opposition figure Reza Pahlavi, has for the first time called on Iranians to consider creating an elected monarch position as part of any system that replaces the Islamic republic, while downplaying the prospect that he would serve in such a role.
Iran's largely exiled opposition groups have long been divided on the country's future. Pahlavi supporters want him to head a revived Iranian monarchy while other activists want a new republic to replace the authoritarian Islamist one led by Shiite clerics who ousted the crown prince's father in a 1979 revolution.
Those clerics have shown no sign of wanting to give up power and have violently suppressed internal dissent for decades. In November 2019, more than 300 people were killed during nationwide anti-government street protests, according to Amnesty International.
In a sign that Pahlavi may have helped Iran's rival monarchist and republican movements to ease their divisions as they campaign for change in their homeland, members of both camps welcomed the crown prince's comments about Iran's future system of government, made in a VOA Persian TV interview aired on Friday. But they said the remarks also raise new questions about how his proposed elected monarchy would differ from a republican system and what kind of role Pahlavi would play in a post-Islamist-ruled nation.
In his interview, the Maryland-based Pahlavi said that if a future Iranian monarch is to be involved in the country's affairs, such a monarch should be "elected" by the people. "I have a serious issue with a hereditary monarchy," he said.
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Pahlavi's father, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, inherited the role of shah in 1941 upon the abdication of the crown prince's paternal grandfather and founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah Pahlavi. "The Iran of the 21st century is different than the Iran of a hundred years ago during its constitutional monarchy," the crown prince said.
Asked whether the head of an elective monarchy should be in the position for life, Pahlavi appeared to be against the idea. "Committing to something for life might be an extreme expectation," he said.
While not explicitly ruling out his potential candidacy for elected monarch, the crown prince said he does not envisage it. "My national and political mission will come to an end when Iranian people go to vote to select their future system of government," Pahlavi said. "The leadership [of the nation] will emerge from within the people in Iran," he added.
Pahlavi did appear to rule out the option of becoming a monarch who has only ceremonial responsibilities and who must read speeches written for him by government officials.
"From my perspective, a symbolic monarch is not the most useful role that I can play for the country," Pahlavi said. "I have not tried so hard to bring freedom to Iran in order to see my own freedom of speech being restricted," he added, in reference to what a ceremonial Iranian monarch might be ordered to say by a future government.
Pahlavi previously expressed his opposition to a hereditary ruling system and to playing the role of a ceremonial monarch in an interview with Britain-based Persian news site Kayhan Life, published originally in Farsi on March 22.
In the interview, Kayhan Life asked the crown prince to comment on an audio recording, initially leaked online on March 16, in which he appeared to tell a virtual gathering of activists that he saw himself as a "rebel" in terms of the "legacy" he inherited and that he preferred Iran to become a new republic rather than to return to a system of hereditary monarchs who exercise absolute authority.
London-based Persian network Iran International reported that some Iranian monarchists reacted to the Pahlavi audio recording with expressions of disbelief on social media and even went as far as to accuse him of being unworthy of his dynastic heritage.
Speaking to VOA, Pahlavi acknowledged the uproar among some of his supporters but suggested that he was expanding on his ideas to encourage a healthy debate. "Some people say to me, 'why you are saying these things now?' I say that I'd prefer to have this crisis now and [people] will have some time to think about it," he said.
The crown prince also said he will continue to advocate for the rights of the Iranian people and stand with them against their Islamist rulers. "Some people might have assumed that I have abandoned the fight. No, I have not," he said.
U.S.-based monarchist Foad Pashaie, a member of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran-Liberal Democrat, told VOA Persian he was reassured by Pahlavi's VOA interview.
"Pahlavi doesn't want to just jump into power," Pashaie said. "If he were to have some position of authority in a new kind of monarchy, he would want the people's approval through an election."
But the IranWire news site quoted another prominent monarchist and member of the Farashgard Foundation, Alireza Kiani, as expressing puzzlement about Pahlavi's reluctance to be at the helm of a potential constitutional monarchy.
"[Pahlavi's] interest in playing an active role [for the Iranian people] is good, but how can you play [such] a role [in a constitutional monarchy] without being the monarch?" Kiani said.
Pro-republic Iranian activist Mehdi Fatapour, a Germany-based former spokesman of the leftist group Organization of Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas, also had a positive reaction to the new Pahlavi interview. In a message to VOA Persian, the activist said he rejects any position of authority in Iran based on religious status or inheritance. "So, I agree with Pahlavi's recent remarks and believe they are new and very important," he said.
But Fatapour noted what he viewed as a contradiction between Pahlavi proposing a new monarchy for Iran and saying a future monarch should be elected. "If he is trying to make the position of monarch an elected one, such a system would be a form of republic," Fatapour said.
Fatapour said he believes it is not yet clear which type of governmental system Pahlavi will endorse and how his supporters will react. For that reason, it is "too early" to judge the impact of Pahlavi's recent statements on the long running divide in the Iranian opposition, he added.
This article originated in VOA's Persian Service.