When it comes to making historic mistakes, Munich has previous, and history has a nasty way of repeating itself. It happened again last weekend at the Munich Security Conference, one of the world’s most important gatherings to discuss peace and international security policy. It was attended by more than 45 Heads of State and Government and nearly 100 ministers from around the world. Notable for their absence this year were official delegations from both Russia and Iran, excluded from the invitation list because of Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine and the clerical regime’s savage crackdown on nationwide protests in Iran. In their place, the new chair of the conference, the German diplomat Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, invited “opposition figures” from these respective nations. Sadly, Reza Pahlavi was the figure supposedly representing the official opposition to the mullahs’ tyrannical regime.

Reza Pahlavi is the son of the late Shah of Iran. The overthrow of the Shah in the 1979 revolution was hailed by the Iranian people as a deliverance from cruel oppression and corruption. The monarchy's relationship with the clergy, who hi-jacked the revolution to seize power, was a complex one. The Shah had initially shown fidelity to religious customs and leaned on the clergy during the first two decades of his rule. It was a symbiotic relationship. The monarchy derived its ‘divine’ claim to legitimacy from the clergy, and the clergy derived its social power and wealth from the monarchy's acquiescence. The two institutions were a major impediment to the formation of a developed civic society based on democratic values and human rights. The clergy, with some exceptions, tried to stay in the Shah's favour and maintained widespread relations with SAVAK, the Shah’s hated secret police. But following widespread demonstrations against his oppressive rule, the Shah fled in January 1979, never to return.

In 1980, after his father's death, Reza Pahlavi proclaimed himself Reza Shah II, and said he wanted Iran to have a constitutional monarchy. Despite claiming that he would like the Iranian people to have the freedom to choose if they wished to restore him as King, he nevertheless proclaimed himself Shah or King while living in Egypt. But, despite abundant financial resources, he has never been able to assemble supporters of the monarchy in exile or form a cohesive opposition group or organization during the past four decades. His failure to emerge as a credible opposition figure has underlined the fact that the monarchy is a spent force that belongs to the past and has nothing to offer for the future of Iran. Indeed, the self-proclaimed ‘Crown Prince’ has inflamed hostility in Iran by stating his would-be support, for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the theocratic regime’s reviled equivalent of the Gestapo. 

It is the warmongering IRGC and their paramilitary militia the Basij, who have shot, arrested, tortured, raped and brutalized opponents of the regime at home and abroad for four decades. They are blacklisted as a foreign terrorist organization in America and the President of the European Parliament, and a huge majority of EU lawmakers, recently called for their blacklisting in Europe. Yet in December 2018, sensing the growing unrest in Iran and clearly envisioning his ‘glorious’ return as King, Reza Pahlavi told a Washington think tank: "People have to send signals to the Basijis and the Pasdars [IRGC], and vice versa. That we can stand together as opposed to continue being versus each other". This outrageous suggestion, from a person who has remained largely invisible in opposition circles for the past 44 years, has exposed the total illegitimacy of the monarchy. After more than four decades, the absolute religious rule of the mullahs with theoretical claims to Islam, albeit opposed by intellectuals and laymen of faith, has revealed itself as another incarnation of that same impediment to democratic development of Iranian society: ruthless dictatorship and disregard of the rule of law based on universal human rights.

Keen to spread confusion through the ranks of the protesters, tens of thousands of whom have called for the overthrow of the theocratic regime, the mullahs have seized on deceptively promoting the return of the monarchy as a way of alarming the people and creating difficulties for the legitimate and main opposition movement the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and their burgeoning Resistance Units, who have guided and coordinated the uprising from the outset. In an earlier uprising in 2017, attempts by the mullahs to infiltrate street protests with agents who chanted their support for the restoration of the Shah, rapidly backfired and were exposed as publicity stunts aimed at distorting the demands of the demonstrators. During the current protests, the mullahs have begun to use a different tactic, trying to link the opposition to the monarchy, to discourage people from joining the protests. But in defiance of this new trick, protesters can routinely be heard yelling “Down with the Oppressor, be it the Shah or the Supreme Leader (Khamenei)” and “No to the Shah! No to the mullahs”, in towns and cities across Iran.

Reza Pahlavi does not represent the Iranian diaspora. The thousands of Iranians who have been demonstrating in North America and Europe, including those who rallied in Berlin in October 2022 and in Paris last weekend, have made it abundantly clear that they are not looking to the past, but to the future and to a democratically elected republic.