When he was 17, the man in the fine pinstriped suit expected one day to be the shah.
Monday afternoon, His Imperial Majesty Reza Pahlavi, son of the deposed Shah of Iran, granted an audience to a half dozen undergraduates — not in a royal palace, but over the tables down at Mory’s.
Though Pahlavi has never ruled and in all likelihood never will, his homeland remains on his mind.
“I will forever consider myself an Iranian, regardless of where I end up,” said Pahlavi.
Pahlavi was on campus to deliver a speech on Iran’s place in the Middle East that night in Sudler Hall.
“I was very impressed with his message and the way that he used his words,” said Raaj Narayan ’04. “It takes a lot for a speaker to move me, but I felt compelled.”
Students addressed Pahlavi as “Your Majesty” as he answered nearly two hours of questions relating to the current state of Iran, its prospects for a democratic future and what role he himself might play in the new Iran.
An advocate for political change in the former kingdom, Pahlavi advocates the creation of a secular, democratic state in place of the current Islamic Republic.
Pahlavi left Iran in 1979 when his father, the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was forced to abdicate his throne and flee the country. The late shah died in Cairo on July 27, 1980, leaving his eldest son and heir to the throne in exile.
The late shah had put into effect a secularism similar to that which his son advocates, although his regime was anything but democratic.
The shah was responsible for the so-called “White Revolution,” a period of broad-based economic, social and cultural reforms.
But even Pahlavi has been unable to ignore the darker aspects of his father’s reign. He has made statements in the past recognizing the excesses of SAVAK, the shah’s personal secret police organization which tortured, maimed and killed thousands from 1953-1979.
After the shah was deposed, the regime of Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini abolished the ancient Persian monarchy, and for 23 years the Peacock Throne has remained empty.
Ever since, the citizens of Iran have been subjected to a brutal and repressive regime that has reversed all of the shah’s efforts at secularization.
Pahlavi declined to speculate on the likelihood of a return to the throne as a constitutional monarch or of his running for office in the country’s first freely elected government.
“Whatever the people think would be appropriate for me to play as a role, whether it’s that of a constitutional monarch, or that of a citizen in another capacity, I’m not going to speculate on that because it has yet to happen.”
The progress of democracy in the Middle East, said Pahlavi, depends on movement toward democracy in Iran.
“How could we expect [other Gulf states] to comfortably commit to a real political reform when they have a belligerent [Iran] breathing down their necks right next door?” he asked.
A titled aristocrat with a decided admiration of modern Western freedoms and society, Pahlavi is endowed with a great love of the native land that he has not seen in 23 years.
“Every day I wake up and I remember that tearful student who came to see me secretly outside, he’s now in prison in Iran, or those 80-year-old men who start shaking whenever they see me on the street,” the one-time heir apparent said.
“And every time they say to me, every single time, and I won’t forget this, ‘You don’t belong to yourself, you belong to us.’ From the day I was born, they’ve been saying that.
“That’s my motivation, that’s my sense of duty, that’s my sense of obligation.”