In the 17th century, James Francis Edward Stuart, the son of King James II and VII of England, Scotland and Ireland, was born just months before his father was deposed and forced into exile in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. After his father’s death in 1701, James claimed he was the rightful heir to the British throne and for the rest of his life was known as ‘The Old Pretender’. It seems as if history has repeated itself in the 21st century. Reza Pahlavi, son of the deposed Shah of Iran, declared himself as the rightful King of the Imperial State of Iran, following his father’s death in 1980. At the age of 63 he has assumed the mantle of Shah II or ‘The Old Pretender’.

Reza Pahlavi’s attempts to resuscitate the Iranian monarchy have been as depressingly ignoble as that of James Francis Edward Stuart. Having fled into exile when his father was deposed in the 1979 revolution, the ‘Old Pretender’ has lived a life of great wealth and opulence in America ever since, although he has never been entirely transparent on the source of his fortune. Despite the apparent existence of abundant financial resources, and despite their mass exodus from Iran in 1979, monarchist groups were never able to transform themselves into a viable political force. Reza Pahlavi has been virtually invisible for the past forty years. He has never been able to assemble supporters of the monarchy in exile and form a cohesive group or organization during all this time, underlining the fact that the monarchy is a spent force that belongs to the past and has nothing to offer for the future of Iran.

The overthrow of the Shah in the 1979 revolution was hailed by the Iranian people as a deliverance from cruel oppression. 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 pervasive relations with SAVAK, the Shah’s hated secret police, who brutally murdered and tortured political activists and intellectuals, including authors, academics, artists, and poets. But following widespread demonstrations against his oppressive rule, the Shah fled in January 1979, never to return.

Now the son of the deposed tyrant calls himself “His Royal Highness, Crown Prince of Iran”. Sniffing the possible downfall of the mullahs’ regime, Pahlavi has suddenly re-emerged from obscurity, claiming that he has a plan to restore a secular democracy with full observance of human rights, in a post-mullah restored monarchy. But the self-proclaimed ‘King’ 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. During a talk show with Iran International TV in 2018, he said: “I am in bilateral contacts with the (regime’s) military, the IRGC and the Basij. We are communicating. They are signalling their readiness and expressing willingness to align with the people.”  It is the warmongering IRGC and their paramilitary 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 Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament, and a huge majority of 598 EU lawmakers, recently called for their blacklisting in Europe. Only 9 MEPs voted against the blacklisting.  

For Reza Pahlavi to suggest a role for the IRGC in a future Iran, is an outrageous indication of the total illegitimacy of the monarchy, a fact which perhaps jolted the self-proclaimed ‘Crown Prince’ into a reality-check when he paid a visit to the European Parliament in Brussels on 1st March. Instead of being greeted by adoring crowds, the ‘Old Pretender’s event, promoted as “a major conference on Iran” was, apart from its two MEP organisers, attended by only one other, solitary MEP.  Not even all nine of the MEPs who voted against the blacklisting of the IRGC bothered to turn up. 

It is hardly surprising. Pahlavi has some serious questions to answer. He must explain why he favours cooperation with the murderous thugs in the IRGC and their Basij militia colleagues. After decades of total silence, he must explain his position on the mullahs’ development of nuclear weapons in Iran. He must explain why he has always shied clear of criticism of his father’s corrupt and brutally despotic regime. He should also clarify why some of his supporters outside a recent conference centre in Munich, brandished a placard bearing a large photo of the infamous Parviz Sabeti, former head of SAVAK. Sabeti fled from Iran together with the deposed Shah during the 1979 revolution and now lives in America. Chillingly, the Farsi slogan on his placard proclaimed: “Nightmare of future terrorists.” Promoting the return of Sabeti is like endorsing the return of Heinrich Himmler. 

During the ongoing insurrection in Iran, now entering its sixth month, with 750 protesters killed so far and over 30,000 arrested, it is noteworthy that the angry crowds are routinely heard to chant “Down with the Oppressor, be it the Shah or the Supreme Leader (Khamenei)” and “No to the Shah! No to the mullahs”. The theocratic regime has tried to exploit Pahlavi’s re-emergence by 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. During the current protests, the mullahs have even begun to pretend that the monarchy is linked to the opposition MEK, to discourage people from joining the protests. But the mostly young protesters are not so easily fooled. They have made it abundantly clear that they are not looking to the past, but to the future and to a democratically elected republic.