Iran's prince plots nonviolent revolution from Maryland suburb

Monday, August 26, 2002

WASHINGTON -- In a cramped office above the garage of Reza Pahlavi's suburban home, the walls are studded with crayon sunrises and autographed Dallas Cowboys photos ("Yo, Reza!"). The old stereos and cameras he enjoys taking apart line the shelves.

The exiled Iranian crown prince sits by a desk where bank statements and family photos jostle for space, waiting until his call goes through and a surprised voice pipes out of the speaker phone from Iran.

"Your Majesty?"

From headquarters above a driveway basketball hoop in a wooded Maryland suburb of Washington, he is phoning Iranians one by one and asking them to sign on to nonviolent insurrection.

"There is no need to die," he tells one enthusiastic supporter. "Just slow down in the workplace; don't do all that you're told. Let the regime feel the footprints of a million ghosts."

"I kiss your hand," the countryman tells the late shah's son before signing off.

Pahlavi is making headway among Iranians rattled by hardship and stifled by theocracy.

His appeals on satellite television and radio have struck a chord, Iran-watchers say, both with older Iranians nostalgic for a more elegant time and restive youth drawn to a name that sends Iran's ruling clerics into apoplectic rage.

Three-fifths of Iranians are 25 years old and younger, so most know little of the Pahlavis and are more likely to look to popular leaders inside the country. Still, Pahlavi, 41, is seizing the moment and campaigning from afar for the return of constitutional monarchy.

His call for street protests coincide with President Bush's recent, unsolicited support for such action, and Bush advisers have echoed Pahlavi's dismissal of reform attempts by President Mohammad Khatami as inept and insincere.

Pahlavi says he is in touch with U.S. officials, although no one in the Bush administration will confirm that. He also is making inroads among wealthy Iranian expatriates needed to finance his cause.

Widespread political protest in Iran is just now hitting its stride.

"The people of Iran now know how to say 'Death to the regime,"' he said. "They still don't know how to complete, 'Long live ...'"

Trained in Texas

In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini directed the overthrow of Pahlavi's father, who fled from country to country on an ignominious sojourn that landed him briefly in the United States, for cancer treatment, and finally in Egypt, where he died the next year.

His son, then 20, had just completed fighter pilot training in Texas, where he learned to love the Cowboys. The world mostly knew him from official photos as the gangly, dark-eyed boy fixing an adoring gaze on his father.

The family dropped out of view. In 1987, Pahlavi learned that a trusted adviser had left him almost penniless. Other family members preserved their millions. His wife, Yasmine, is a child welfare lawyer.

All the more striking, then, has been Pahlavi's emergence as a voice speaking to Iran's future. In February 2001, authorities broke up a royalist demonstration in a Tehran park; in November, Iranians celebrating World Cup soccer qualifying victories in Tehran shouted his name in the streets.

The difference has been technology. Satellite dishes, once too big to hide from Iranian authorities, are smaller and harder to spot. Expatriate Iranians buy transistor radios and smuggle them to family and friends.

Wears the hated necktie

Pahlavi calibrates his message, emphasizing the clerics' greatest weakness: modernity. He is clean-shaven and elegant in his television appearances, where he sports the accouterment most hated by clerics but increasingly fashionable among the young: a necktie, often red, green and gold, like the flag of his father's era.

He acknowledges the limitations of organizing insurrection from abroad. The people he calls have e-mailed or faxed him their phone numbers; such communication is limited to the wealthy and a few others.

He cannot tell his followers to get together, because any caller could be a spy for Iran. "How do you organize without compromising them?" he asked.

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