Reza Pahlavi was for decades on the distant margins of Iranian politics, an exiled crown prince with a spattering of monarchist supporters inside and outside the country.
But Pahlavi, the US-based son of Iran’s last shah who was toppled in the 1979 revolution, has in recent months become a figurehead for an increasingly ambitious opposition in the diaspora that believes the time is ripe to foment regime change in the Islamic republic.
The result is that, 44 years after his father was unseated, Pahlavi has been touring European capitals as part of a campaign to convince the west to ramp up support for Iranian protesters who want the theocracy replaced by a secular democracy.
Supplementing the sanctions already imposed on the republic with actions to “empower” Iranians who oppose the regime would go a long way to “making them more capable of bringing pressure from within”, Pahlavi said in an interview with the Financial Times.
Such comments reflect confidence among the regime’s opponents abroad that the mass protests last year that followed the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini have altered the dynamics in Iran. It also underlined how they hoped to shape western policy.
Pahlavi, 62, attended last month’s Munich Security Conference, while Iranian officials were not invited. He followed up by meeting lawmakers in London, Paris and Brussels.
Pahlavi, who has not returned to Iran since 1978 when he left, aged 17, to study in the US, said that chances for “high-level” meetings existed before, but the difference now was that people were engaging. “After 43 years the world is beginning to say we’d better start talking to people who are part of the solution and the alternative.”
The protests have diminished, but with Iran under mounting social and economic pressures, the republic’s opponents predict further cycles of unrest. Buoyed by internal calls for regime change, Pahlavi and others in the diaspora are drawing up a charter to prepare for a “transition” should the theocracy collapse.
After decades of deep divisions within a diaspora that mostly displayed little appetite for political activity, Pahlavi and other opposition figures abroad have found their voices amplified to unprecedented levels on the international stage.
It is in part due to the nature and scope of the protests, which presented the regime with its severest threat in years. This coincided with escalating tensions between Iran and the west that were partly due to Tehran’s crackdown against the demonstrators, as well as its decision to sell drones to Russia used in its war against Ukraine.
Pahlavi is the eldest son of the late Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who sought to modernise Iran over four decades as shah with the backing of the US. But many Iranians felt alienated by his western-style development, corruption and autocratic rule, culminating in the tumultuous events that overthrew his dynasty.
Today, many Iranians remain sceptical about the overseas opposition and Pahlavi, arguing they lack credible leaders and are removed from ordinary people and the republic’s pro-democracy activists. There are questions about their level of support inside the country. Some say the diaspora’s activities play into the hands of a regime keen to blame the unrest on its foreign enemies.
“The [overseas] opposition is more relevant than before because of the impact they’re having on domestic politics in the countries they reside, but their agenda is not always the same as internal activists,” said Ali Vaez, analyst at Crisis Group, a think-tank. “Their own intolerance and infighting has contributed to concerns.”
Analysts say the new elevated role of Pahlavi and others in the diaspora also exposed a weakness in the opposition — the lack of clear leadership inside or outside Iran. “There are so many people with capacity and potential, but it’s hard to identify one single person that will galvanise and rally support, particularly inside Iran,” said Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House.
Pahlavi insisted he was in contact with activists inside Iran and was reflecting their views. His aim was to convince the west to do more to help Iranians circumvent internet restrictions and to raise funds to support striking workers, believing labour unrest would “paralyse the system”.
“We’re trying to do all of this in the context of non-violent and civil disobedience change without having to resort to violence or foreign intervention,” he said. Opposition figures called for general strikes during the protests, a tactic that helped loosen the shah’s grip on power in 1979, but they went largely unheeded.
In Iran, analysts and diplomats say that among the activist diaspora, which includes actors, journalists and footballers, Pahlavi has a degree of stature as the last shah’s son. Yet his heritage is also seen as a weakness, as many remember the autocratic nature of his father’s regime.
“Nobody is contesting what happened in history,” Pahlavi said. “I had no responsibility in the previous regime, I had the title of crown prince but nobody holds me accountable for that.”
Pahlavi, whose supporters still refer to him as “his majesty”, is ambiguous on whether he wants to see a return to monarchy. He said he would recuse “myself from this debate so I don’t favour one or the other”.
His task was to build a “coalition of political organisations [and] groups” and prepare for what happens should the regime fall. Asked if he viewed himself as a transitional leader, he replied: “That’s what people want me to play as a role; monarchists or republicans.”
He added: “My mission in life will end the day people go to the polls and elect their future system.”