The King and I
Once upon a time there lived a prince...
... seen recently at the Safeway checkout line
Another Golden Oldie. Exactly a year ago I published an article, "Operation Iranian Freedom? Same director, similar script. We’re beginning to think we’ve seen this movie before …" in The American Conservative. It focused on the plans by the Bush Administration to provide financial and logistical support for Iranian "freedom fighters" as part of a strategy of "regime change" in Teheran. The article also included a moving recounting of a historic encounter at the Safeway checkout line between one of these U.S.-backed "freedom fighters," His Imperial Majesty, Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and yours truly:
Needless to say that after the article was published I started getting skeptical responses from friendly and unfriendly colleagues who thought that I was exaggerating (story of my life...), that they couldn't believe that anyone in Washington was taking the Phalavi Jr. seriously, etc. etc. I certainly assumed after the last -- and mostly democratic -- presidential election in Iran that brought to power a radical Islamic figure (the conventional wisdom in Washington had been that the corrupt Rafsanjani would win), the Bushies would put their plans to establish an Iranian Solidarity-like movement on the policy backburner. I was wrong. In a interesting and long piece "Exiles" in the March 6, 2006, issue of The New Yorker,(p. 48; sorry, no links) Connie Bruck reports that many Iranian exiles are positioning themselves to get support from the Bush Administration in the hopes of being able to fill any ensuing power vacuum in the wake of a possible regime change in Iran. Bruck also reports on the belated emergence of a comprehensive policy from the Bush Administration. She writes, “A little over a year into President Bush’s second term, they can finally argue that a two-track policy has emerged.... The Administration ... has achieved its longtime goal of bringing Iran to the Security Council. And, once that was secured ... the Administration was finally free to pursue a reconstituted policy of regime change, or, as it now says, democratization.” The concern, Bruck writes, is that having had zero diplomatic ties with Iran since 1979, the United States is in a “situation ripe for exploitation by the opposition groups, who were eager to sell themselves as guides to the unmapped region, as the ready-made solution to what was, in truth, an increasingly intractable and grave dilemma.” And guess who is the star in Bruck's article?
After living in the nation’s capital for several years I can tell you that it’s not a big deal to find yourself in the same room with some of the city’s power players. Just get the Boys Choir of Bentonville, Arkansas to confirm that you are the “Washington correspondent” for their newsletter, and you will probably be issued an official press pass, allowing you to attend briefings, hearings, think-tank discussions, and diplomatic receptions where you would have an opportunity to meet this undersecretary or that senator. But these encounters usually take place in formal settings where aides to the Big Shot ensure that you won’t get more than a phony smile and a few empty refrains.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the really cool thing in Washington is the unexpected encounter with the Powerful and Mighty, for example, when you notice that congressman and his wife (?) having a drink in a dark corner of the bar or when you run into the FBI director shopping for underwear at Bloomingdale’s.
A few years ago, I was sitting in a movie theater in Washington and in the row in front of me were Alan Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell holding hands. Then there was that time I bumped into James Baker in an ice-cream parlor wearing shorts and eating frozen yogurt (vanilla). And then I had that chance encounter with Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
I ran into young Reza in the checkout line at Safeway while buying milk and grapefruit juice. It took me a few minutes to recognize His Imperial Majesty, whom I remembered from watching television in the late 1970s, when as a teenager Reza joined his terminally ill father in exile. I didn’t know whether I should bow in the presence of the pretender to the Iranian throne, but then he looked at my carton of milk and bottle of juice and said with that certain dignity only Real Royals project, “You have only two items. You should stand in the express line.”
That was a classy act. If only his dad had displayed those kind of leadership qualities when dealing with Khomeini. So you can imagine that since that moving encounter, I have had a soft spot for His Highness. But I didn’t think about Pahlavi Jr. until recently, when President Bush, the star of that Let’s-Remake-the-Middle-East reality show, turned his attention to Iran, ready to utter those two words that get the neocon juices flowing: “You’re Bombed!”
I’ve seen the name of the Virginia-based son of the last Shah mentioned in newspaper reports as the man that Bush administration officials regard as their most promising ally in the campaign to achieve the next regime change in the Middle East. Indeed, “united by the desire for regime change in Iran and encouraged by the overthrow of the Iraqi regime, exiled Iranian monarchists are developing an alliance in Washington with influential neo-conservatives as well as Pentagon officials and Israeli lobby groups,” reported Guy Dinmore and Najmeh Bozorgmehr in the Financial Times. In fact, supporters of my old check-out line acquaintance “see a role model [for Pahlavi] in Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress who is backed by powerful figures in the Pentagon as a future leader in Baghdad committed to a secular, pro-western democracy,” according to the FT. The piece was published a few months before Chalabi was accused of passing U.S. military secrets to Iranian agents and switched from being the darling of Douglas Feith and Richard Perle to a political ally of anti-American Shi’ite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. (I once encountered Chalabi washing his hands in the men’s room at the Cato Institute, but that took place in a formal setting and lacked that sense of surprise and intimacy that defined my Pahlavi-at-Safeway experience.)
To paraphrase Karl Marx and add a Yogi Berra touch, listening to what former fans of Chalabi are saying about Pahlavi reminds one that déjà vu repeats itself all over again, first as tragedy, second as farce. Michael Ledeen has described Pahlavi as “widely admired inside Iran, despite his refreshing lack of avidity for power or wealth,” while another AEI resident, Reuel Marc Gerecht, contends that there is a growing “nostalgia” for the Shah’s son inside Iran. More
Bruck meets with Reza Pahlavi, the forty-five-year-old son of the deposed Shah of Iran, and with Shahriar Ahy, an opposition figure who effectively serves as Pahlavi’s political strategist, mentor, and speechwriter. “For years,” Bruck writes, “the Iranian opposition has been so beset by factionalism that it has defied efforts at mobilization. Pahlavi says that those days are past. Ahy is organizing a national congress, built around the Iran referendum movement, which calls for a nationwide vote on changing the constitution in order to make Iran a secular state.” Pahlavi tells Bruck, “Today, it is not ‘You are a monarchist,’ ‘You are a republican,’ ‘You are a Marxist’—we are all in the same boat, fighting a common enemy.” While loyalists, and even some of his friends, claim Pahlavi has his heart set on the throne, Bruck writes, “he insists that his ‘sole mission’ is to bring democracy to Iran, and that the Iranian people will then decide whether they want a democratic republic or a constitutional monarchy.” Another exile group, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (People’s Mujahideen), or M.E.K., is the best-funded and best-organized of the groups. While they have been on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list since 1997, they also have supporters in Congress.
Bruck writes, “The dearth of options and of knowledge about Iran—combined with the Bush Administration’s renewed commitment to regime change—makes virtually anything seem possible.” Since the movement of the issue of Iran’s nuclear program to the Security Council, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 15th (asking for supplemental funding adding up to $85 million to increase pressure on the Iranian regime, by expanding radio and television broadcasting into Iran and helping political dissidents) those within and without the Administration who had advocated for more of a hard-line policy with Iran have been discouraged. The exiles, who are finally seeing the indications of possible regime change, are ecstatic. When Bruck asks R. Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s Under-Secretary for Political Affairs, whether, if the Iranians were to signal some readiness to compromise, he could envision the U.S. holding talks with Iran, he replies, “The Iranians have given no indication of a willingness to be receptive—none—since Ahmadinejad was elected. And, you know, Secretary Rice has been saying consistently that we are on a diplomatic track, and we are. But diplomacy has to be hard-edged. I don’t mean warlike. I mean hard-edged. And so we think it’s far more likely that Iran is going to respond to isolation, to sanctions, and to tough measures like that from the international community, rather than just jaw-jaw. So we believe we’ve entered a new phase of the diplomacy, where we have to take the Iranians to the Security Council, where we have to illuminate their transgressions, and countries have to begin to penalize them with sanctions, and other punitive measures, in order to tighten the pressure around them.”
And today, there is a front-page story in The Washington Post which provides more info about the U.S.-led campaign to help our new "freedom fighters" in Iraq. See you in Teheran!