Which Road to Iran?

Before democracy can be ushered in, a culture of democracy must be developed


Which Road to Iran?
by Hamid Karimianpour

As revolutionary spirit is gaining momentum in the Middle East, it is only a matter of time before we see millions of Iranians take to the street demanding democratic change. The question is whether the US should seize the opportunity, at a time when Iran’s central government becomes vulnerable, to effect regime change militarily, through a coup, or other coercive methods?

The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution drafted in 2009 nine different policy options for deal­ing with Iran. These policies ranged from direct military intervention in the form of full-scale invasion or surgical strike on nuclear sites, containment, regime change through stirring up dissident groups inside Iran, to devising some form of coup d’état to replace the government in Tehran with Iranian dissident figures in exile. The draft is merely a strategic assessment of options. It does not make recommendations; nor does it go into operational details. But, strangely, it highlights Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran’s last shah, as a potential candidate, if a coup d’état becomes the preferred option.

As of today all options remain on the table with regard to Iran. Although in recent years Washington has backed away from the idea of intervening directly in the Iranian affairs, there is no guarantee that the US policymakers will abstain from the temptation of regime change in Iran, using whatever force necessary, if an opportunity arises in the near future.

In 1953, the Eisenhower government orchestrated a coup to oust Iran’s Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, putting the despotic shah firmly in charge of Iran and the American and European oil companies in charge of the Iranian petroleum. After the coup, the shah dealt with the Iranian dissidents heavy-handedly under the CIA’s watch. Regardless of who was at fault in 1953 and whatever justifications for the coup or lack thereof, Ayatollah Khomeini masterfully used the anti-shah and anti-American sentiments in the population to stir up a revolution twenty-six years later, which ended up in the ouster of the shah, a hostage crisis where 52 American embassy personnel were held hostage for 444 days, a bloody war between Iran and Iraq lasting for 8 years, and over 30 years of bitter animosity between Tehran and Washington; so much about the legacy of American intervention in Iran in 1953. Back in 1953, the coup was hailed as a success story within the CIA headquarters, but had they known what would happen twenty-six years later, it is unlikely that they would have uncorked their champagne bottles so much.

If the coup against Mossadegh did not provide Washington with an important lesson, here is a new chance to repeat the mistake. The shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, fled to the US as a teenager after the 1979 Islamic revolution, and has lived here ever since. He has neither ever held political office, nor ever gained general professional experience from Iran. Since leaving Iran, he has not had any meaningful relationship with Iranians living inside the country. Today, he is heading the Iranian royalist party in exile, Saltanattalan, but his approval ratings range from 7% to 12% by his party’s own opinion polls. Reza Pahlavi seems genuinely in love with his country, and he is a significant human rights advocate, but he lacks the breadth of knowledge, experience, and support to become the Saban Center’s king of Iran. He is simply a guy – although a very nice guy, I might add – with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

It is surprising that the Saban Center would even consider Reza Pahlavi as a candidate for the job, if it was aware of the facts surrounding his qualifications. If the Saban Center was not aware of these facts, their proposal demonstrates a case of Washing­ton’s advisors devising foreign policy strategies without proper knowledge.

As if this is not enough to reject Reza Pahlavi’s candidacy for the king­dom of Iran, his party’s fixation on the Aryan race is disturbing too. Appeal to race began with Reza Pahlavi’s grandfather, Reza Shah, in 1930s, and the Saltanattalaban has relied on racial symbols ever since to unite Iranians, although less and less explicitly as time has passed. It must be made clear immediately that the Saltanattalaban is not a racist organization. Quite the contrary, the organization and Reza Pahlavi advocate a foreign policy for Iran that is re­spectful of all races and nations. Iran has never had a history of racism in the same way as Western Europeans cultivated a racial ideology early in the last century to colonize Africa and Asia. Racial symbols, such as the symbol of the Aryan race and Ancient Persian icons, have been used by individual mem­bers of the Saltanattalaban more like Americans use American symbols to celebrate America’s greatness. But while America refers to a nation, which any race can become a part of through the process of naturalization, the symbols used by Saltanattalaban appeals to a unique Persian race. This is at least an ideologi­cal problem, even if the symbols are not used to discriminate other races.

Other Iranian groups in exile are even less worthy of being considered for political office inside Iran, if at all. The Iranian leftist party, Tudeh, was a communist party, which was largely de­stroyed by the Islamic Republic early in 1980s. Traces of the party are scat­tered all around the world, where Iranians reside, but they hardly constitute anything more than minute social clubs for its nostalgic sympathizers.

The Mujahedeen Khalgh has been on the US’s list of terrorist organizations for a number of years. They were recently removed from the EU’s list of terrorist organizations, yet their journey to the heights of power in Iran seems like an impossible upheaval struggle. The organization alienated the Iranian people by siding with Saddam during the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s in a hope that Saddam could help them to power, but Saddam did not even get a chance to zip up his pants when the US troops stormed his tiny cellar in December 2003. The Mujahedeen has been foretelling in thirty-one years that the Is­lamic Republic is only months away from falling, but their predictions have resulted in nothing more than unfulfilled prophecy.

There exists neither a sure dissident group outside Iran, nor inside Iran, which the US can be sure to rely on. Before democracy can come to Iran, a culture of democracy and tolerance for diverse ideas must evolve in the country. Some of the extreme comments to articles and opinions on the Iranian.com show that we as a people have a long way to go to develop the level of tolerance required for a working democracy. Politics has a cultural root, and cultural transformations are typically slow and painful. Azar Nafisi wrote in her bestselling book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, that she as a young activist in the Iranian communist party participated in the 1979 Revolution to overthrow the despotic shah, only to see him replaced by a worse authoritarian ruler: Khomeini. Her dream was shattered as Khomeini’s men cracked down on people’s freedom. As Nafisi wrote, quite correctly, the Islamic Republic was Khomeini’s dream, and he forced it upon the Iranian people with violence. But she failed to tell her read­ers – and her readers did not care to question – that her own dream, that of a communist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, would have equally suppressed the Iranian people – not by the Islamic Sharia law, but by her communist manifesto. In 1979, the royalists, communists, Islamists, and others were vying for power to implement their version of dictatorship, and Khomeini came out the winner. One dream might have been better than the other, one might have been more hideous than the other, but they would all have been the dream of a few enforced on the many.

For democracy to have a real chance, the culture must be ready for it. As a leader, Khomeini had a responsibility to cultivate democracy. He failed to do that, but there was a culture in Iran – and still is – that allowed him to do that. Given this culture, there would be no democracy in Iran, whether Khomeini got his way or Nafisi.

The sight of millions of Iranians taking to the streets in June 2009 to protest the alleged rigged reelection of Ahmadinejad and the violent crack-down of peaceful demonstrators drew international attention and condemnation. The protestors believed that Ahmadinejad’s rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was the real winner, and sympathetic Westerners quickly threw their lot behind him. Mousavi is a calculated politician, highly educated, and an avid reformist, who has the support of a vast number of Iranian people as well as important figureheads within the Iranian political system. But it is uncertain, if his leadership style is strong enough to pull off the reform process in a country riddled with con­servative ideology. Mousavi is more of a quiet man. He served as prime min­ister of Iran between 1981 and 1988. As prime minister, he eagerly followed Khomeini’s politics, and never protested against human rights abuses under his watch. He left the political center stage after his premiership ended and held a low profile for 20 years.

In a televised debate with Ahmadinejad days before the June election, Mousavi complained about the damage to Iran’s international reputation that had been caused by Ahmadinejad’s theatrical behavior in the British Royal Navy incident two years earlier. The incident involved 15 British Royal Navy personnel faring through Persian Gulf and allegedly trespassing into the Iranian waters. The incident occurred during a very hostile atmosphere between Iran and the coalition forces and the Ira­nian government was keen to show that Iran would not tolerate any assault on its borders. The British crew were arrested by the Iranian coast guards and detained for several days until Ahmadinejad issued a special presiden­tial pardon. Ahmadinejad used the opportunity to stage a high-profile in­ternational media circus, where the crews were dressed in suits and he as a clown of the circus with a broad smile on his face would hand them gifts or souvenir before releasing them. The show ridiculed Iran. Iranians around the world watched the event and shook their heads at the absurd behavior of the president of their country. In his election debate with Ahmadinejad, Mousavi criticized the president for his bizarre media stunt, saying that if the British Navy personnel were truly guilty of transgressing into the Iranian waters, they should have been prosecuted and executed, but not used in a circus-like television show. It is doubtful that Mousavi would ever want to execute foreign subjects. The statement was most likely a slip of the tongue. Nonetheless, the words crossed his lips, but were missed by his sympathetic Western supporters who eagerly desired a regime change in Iran.

The Iranian problem is an evolving story. Before democracy can be ushered in, a culture of democracy must be developed in the country over time. What solution the future has in store for Iran, we do not know. But that solution has a chance of succeeding only if it comes from the Iranians themselves, not from the Oval Office.

Hamid Karimianpour is the author of Nation Building or Democracy by Other Means, available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.


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more from Hamid Karimianpour

Mr Hosseini can you help me?

by hooshie on

You seem to have a flare for using words just to rhyme never mind if they actualy make any sense or have any relevant meaning.

People never controlled
That is how we all stalled

What do you mean "that is how we stalled? What are you trying to say?


Please see my analysis and in a poetic language

by ahosseini on

Most revolutions have failed
Because they have been derailed
Never mind Ayatollahs
And the groups of mullahs
Failed by likes of Stalin
Trotsky and Lenin
Failed because all these leaders
Agitators and thinkers
All in the name of workers
Were self appointed leaders
Of course it would never work
In such a bad framework
The solution is one word
And don't think this is absurd
I am sure you would agree
Democracy is the key
The key had always been lost
And we had to pay the cost
behind every failure
has been this exact culture
People never controlled
That is how we all stalled


Is Democracy is a legitimate process for 3rd world countries?

by amirparvizforsecularmonarchy on

Not in Irans case, I would say.

If you have an election in Iran between Reza Pahlavi and 4 other popular candidates, he would most likely lose. 

Even though his platform is 100% in line with Capitalist, Secular and Progressive views.  I think if that's the case this whole thing of let the people have the say is exactly the wrong thing from a perspective of Freedom for Iran. 

Mullahs and Communists have the lead from a popularity standpoint.  What can oe say about democracy and Iran today, when one looks at these realities? 

Why can't the USA make the case that democracy is not the correct approach for Iran and just support monarchists, since at least freedom and justice can be brought in along with development and gradual democratization? 



by afshinazad on

In this so called British documents are mentioned that Reza Shah, has taken $200 million dollars to south africa, can you tell me how much was the Irans oil sales or in better word, how much British were giving to Iranain. as far as I know Iranian share in oil was $20000 dollars a year and you tell me, where did he get the $200 million dollars, don't you think these bullshits were good for 33 year ago and not now.

This MAJD  who is gathering all these information! is he part of this Bani Sadr who was kissing Khomenie's hand and same person who was against shah that people go and kiss shah's hand, tell me if all these lies are coming from British or Islamist are really reliable information.

Islamist and Todeh people will never be forgoton for their treason and they are the ones who brought the this nightmare upon our nation and the country.

Anonymous Observer

Another "abgooshti" analysis by an "Iran expert" wannabe

by Anonymous Observer on

Appeal to race began with Reza Pahlavi’s grandfather, Reza Shah, in 1930s, and the Saltanattalaban has relied on racial symbols ever since to unite Iranians, although less and less explicitly as time has passed.

What in the world are you talking about?  What "racial symbols?"  Give us an example please.  And be specific please...with photos, references, etc.  No safsateh, if you don't mind.  

Darius Kadivar

Hamid Khan Halah Khial Meekonee Balegh Shodi ? ;0)

by Darius Kadivar on

Darius Kadivar

And this fellow was published by Barnes&Nobles? What a Waste

by Darius Kadivar on

Of TIme Reading this Diatribe ...


Darius Kadivar

Get Your Facts Right RP2 never Fled He was in Texas at the time

by Darius Kadivar on

As Crown Prince of Iran and the oldest of four siblings, he left Iran at the age of 17 for air force training, during which time the establishment of the clerical regime in Iran prevented his return to his homeland. Despite being forced to live in exile, Reza Pahlavi’s commitment and patriotic duty to Iran endures.

After leaving Iran, Reza Pahlavi completed his higher education with a degree in political science from the University of Southern California. An accomplished jet fighter pilot, Reza Pahlavi completed the United States Air Force Training Program at the Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. During the Iran-Iraq War, Reza Pahlavi volunteered to serve his country’s military as a fighter pilot, but was declined by the clerical regime.


Profile: Reza Pahlavi